Cunningham family legacy lives on with donation

By Megan Walchuk

A lifelong passion for public libraries has become an enduring gift for local book lovers; the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre has received the final instalment of a $1.1 million bequest from the estate of Patricia Cunningham, daughter of the late Joyce Cunningham.

Patricia, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 53, was a life-long patron and supporter of the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre. Reading was her passion she shared with her mother, along with a lifelong love of libraries.

Joyce Cunningham was a teacher and librarian at Fort Frances High School for many years, and later served as chair of the Fort Frances Public Library Board for multiple terms. Joyce was instrumental in the design and building of the new library and served on several provincial library organizations. Until her death in 2015, she worked tirelessly to advance the work of public libraries.

Fort Frances’s current mayor Andrew Hallikas is an old friend and colleague of Joyce. They met in 1983, when Hallikas began teaching in Fort Frances. The two became lifelong friends.

“Joyce was an exceptional individual,” he said. “Joyce was one of those people who left their community a better place, due to her efforts.”

Beyond her civic work, she was a respected and much-loved teacher, he said.

“She was articulate, highly intelligent and had a knack for getting the best out of her students,” he said. “She also had a wicked sense of humour, and you could tell by the twinkle in her eye that she was about to say something outrageous.”

Literature was her passion, so her transition into the role of teacher-librarian was a natural one. She served the Fort Frances High School library until her retirement, and was instrumental in the design of the library in the current high school, which was built in 1999. She served as its first librarian — a role she embraced with all her heart, as a staunch and passionate supporter of all libraries, Hallikas said.

“She loved the concept of the public library, and the fact that they were free for everyone to use,” he said.

So it was no surprise to anyone that upon her retirement from teaching, she threw her energy and passion into the Library Board. She served multiple terms, and was chair for nearly 10 years.

The library at that time was in the building on the corner of Victoria and Church, beside the clinic parking lot. Even then, despite upgrades and additions, the library was deemed too small for the community. Joyce was at the helm, leading the way for a new library for Fort Frances — an epic project which was fitting of her vast organizational skills.

Joyce was a meticulous planner, and joined forces with the library CEO Margaret Sedgwick. Together, they toured libraries across the province, collecting the best design and layout elements to incorporate into the Fort Frances build.

Joyce took an active role in the fundraising as well. Nearly $1 million was raised for the project, through the efforts of a dedicated fundraising team, including Joyce, Sedgwick and Mark Kowalchuk. The construction didn’t cost taxpayers a dime, noted Hallikas — the entire amount was raised through grants, donations and local fundraising. Joyce set an example by contributing $25,000 of her own money to the project.

The opening of the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre was one of Joyce’s proudest achievements.

“Joyce was chair of the Library Board at that time and was visibly emotional when she made her speech at the opening,” noted Hallikas.

Her efforts, and her commitment to civic life, earned her the Fort Frances Citizen of the Year Award for 2010.

That was just one of the accolades Joyce earned from her commitment to libraries. She sat on many provincial boards, including Ontario Library Services North, of which she eventually served as chair, and also the Ontario School Libraries Association and the Ontario Library Boards Association.

For her unwavering dedication to libraries, Joyce was awarded the James Bain Medallion for Public Library Board Member of the Year in 2014, by the Ontario Library Association. The OLBA also posthumously created an award in honour of Joyce. The Joyce Cunningham Award (Public Library Board of the Year) was presented for the first time in 2016. Hallikas was proud to stand in for Joyce, to present the inaugural award to the Windsor Public Library.

“I served on the OLS-N Board after Joyce’s death, and every single person on the Board knew and admired her. She left a large gap when she stepped down as chair,” noted Hallikas. “Joyce embodied the spirit and generosity of the community volunteer. She spent countless hours working for the people of Fort Frances and the province to advance the cause of libraries.”

Patricia and Joyce’s final gift to the community of $1.1 million will leave a lasting legacy for the library they both loved.

“The board and staff of the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre will be forever grateful for the generosity and kindness of these two wonderful library patrons,” stated a release from the library.

Board chair Sheri De Gagné noted that the library will make effective use of this gift to continue to provide its users with the very latest in technology, programming, and services.
“The generosity, civic mindedness, and far sightedness of Patricia and Joyce will ensure that library patrons will continue to receive innovative, creative library services and programming, now and into the future. We are very thankful for their thoughtfulness,” she said.