On December 9th 2011 Noel Cunningham was laid to rest in Denver. He began his journey of 62 years in Dublin Ireland. At age 14 he began to prepare for a lifelong career in the culinary business. Working first in a hometown kitchen, the young chef-to-be learned his lessons well. Honing his skills in London and Beverly Hills, he moved to Denver where he started three restaurants including ‘Strings,’ a Mile High City landmark that is still delighting customers in it’s 25th year.
Those adventures alone could make for a colorful life story, add Noel’s selfless deeds and accomplishment and you define a
life truly Epic.
Colorado’s 41st Governor Bill Ritter gave a thoughtful and poignant eulogy that spoke of Noel’s “spectacular works” that touched people’s lives from Denver to around the world with vigorous efforts to fundraise for schools, health care clinics, hospitals, playgrounds and other projects.
He gave examples of Noel and wife Tammy’s commitment to build programs at Yetabon in Ethiopia through Project Mercy, and other collaborative enterprises, – Share our Strength, Taste of the Nation, Safe House, Toys for Tots, Volunteers of America, Quarters for Kids, the Hope Bracelet project – all just a partial list of their extraordinary philanthropy.
Through tears and sometimes humorous recollections he reminded us of Noel’s down-to-earth personality. Having hosted Presidents, dignitaries, and others of fame and fortune, he still kept an uncommon humility and never put himself above anyone regardless of their social standing.
It’s no surprise to know that the first time I meet Noel he was helping someone. His friends John and Una Nallen, had recently opened Nallen’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in downtown Denver . He went down to the pub to observe and lend his expertise to his fellow natives of Ireland. He was good at giving advise.
When our Celtic Connection morphed from a newsletter to a newspaper format he was the first to call with congratulations followed by suggestions on how to make it better. He was a straight shooter but never insulting.
I always appreciated the time and caring that he gave to a regular ham-‘n-egger like me. He seemed to understand the challenges of what we were trying to do at the CC and Celtic Events. He would wonder out loud how we could financially sustain and offer a “let me know if I can help buddy.” And he did help.
Most of our Celtic Events require us by contract to feed the performers. I would regardless for fear of being haunted by my dear Mom if I was not a good host to visitors. Because of time and money, we usually have Thai, Chinese, or other food requested by the band delivered to the “green room” at the venue. But every now and then circumstances allow or dictate that you put out the fine china. For us that meant a trip to Strings. After a fine meal that one would expect from Noel and staff, we would always find that the bearded one had whittled away a portion of the bill. One night he did more.
It was one of those nights were the band played great and the audience was enthusiastic- but afterwards when you add up all of costs to present, promote, and produce you find that you didn’t make it past your breakeven point. You leave the box-office with a smile plastered over the pain because you don’t want to be a downer to the happy folks surrounding you – But inside you worry how you are going to get your next tank of gas.
With enough room on a credit card to proceed we left the venue for a post gig diner at Strings. During the course of the evening Noel asked me if the show was a success. As discreetly and nonchalantly as possible I told him that the show was awesome but that there were tears on my calculator.
Noel saw straight through my attempt at levity. At the end of the night the waiter came to our table and told us that our meal was compliments of Noel.
Thank you Noel, your inspirational caring and unconditional kindness will be remembered forever.
~ Pat McCullough
The Celtic Connection/Celtic Events & Entertainment
A few years back when Regis gave Noel the Civis Princeps Award, the First Citizen Award, Noel dressed in the finest, plumed and puffed up academic regalia, not the best fit for him, reminded all the professors present, “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to know you have to be charitable in this life.” It is my favorite quote by Noel and he never forgot his Dublin working class roots. He wanted to wear his chef’s cap that day.
~ Dennis Gallagher, (Denver City Auditor)
Noel was tireless in his support of all things Irish, including the trinity of goals of the American Ireland Fund – peace, charity, and culture. His wry smile, the gleam in his eye, and his generosity of heart and spirit made Noel a pillar of the Irish community in Colorado and across the globe. The support he provided, financial and culinary, but most importantly, his warmth, humor and bounteous spirit, will be irreplaceable. We all mourn this great loss, and take heart from the abundant legacy Noel has left for all of us to follow and be nourished from.
~ Edward P. Timmins, Esq.
When my loving husband, Klaus Christ, suffered a stroke, Noel arrived through the side door at the nursing home, with his cart, a napkin draped across his arm, a big smile, and personally wheeled the cart into Klaus’ room filled with wonderful food prepared from Strings………..This wonderful food nursed my husband back to good health. Noel arrived every day for weeks to come! It was Noel who brought a wonderful healer from Ethiopia to our home who miraculously had my paralyzed husband rise from his wheelchair and walk around our room without his cane. There are no words to describe this wonderful friend and humanitarian. May his spirit live on forever and pass on his charitable, unselfish, benevolent love for mankind. He fed the old, the homeless, the orphaned, the abandoned, the elite, and me. I will never forget the sparkle in his eye, and warm welcome each and every time we met. He was truly unforgettable. May God bless and comfort his wonderful family at this most difficult time. May Noel’s legacy carry on forever. ~ Sonja Christ
Noel most recently hosted the fledgling Irish Business Network Colorado at Strings and made it memorable by his being there. We will miss him terribly..
~ Tom Burke, Esq.
In late 2002, a friend and I were having lunch at Strings when Noel came to our table, talked briefly about giving globally, and me a book, Sheltered By The King by Marta Gabre-Tsadick from Ethiopia. As he walked away he said, “ I’ll call you in a couple weeks.” That he did!
We talked briefly about the book and he asked me if I could connect him with Regis University. A few calls got the ball rolling and today Regis University’s Rueckert Hartman College for Health Care Professions (RHCHP) sponsors an annual trip of students and alumni/ae, that has grown to more than 75 students, to Ethiopia. According to Jeremy Lee, Director of Center for Service Learning in RHCHP, some students in the health professions choose Regis because they know they will have a global experience in a poor country like Ethiopia.
In 2004 the Denver Business Journal named Noel Cunningham Corporate Citizen of the Year. Noel, I quickly learned was the ideal role model for our corporate world that, generally speaking, stands in need of healing.
Noel lived the meaning of philanthropy, philios – love * anthropos – (man) people. He had a desire to improve the material, social, and spiritual welfare of humanity. I thank Noel for who he was and all he did — a man with a big heart. My faith tells me that he is now at peace with our merciful God.
~Lydia M. Peña, SL – Sister of Loretto
Former Academic Advisor at Loretto Heights College to
Pat McCullough, Publisher, Celtic Connection
Words buckle and fail in the wound of such loss! He was, and remains, so much to so many: all that passion and compassion, the charming wit and the giving heart, the compelling vision and the radical commitment to bring dreams to reality, to dress the drearest portion of the day with hope and care. Most especially, we lament his absence in the lives of the many students he inspired. His example will continue to feed us and lift us. May he who rested so little in his days here rest eternally and peacefully.
~ Victoria McCabe (Regis University)
Noel was an angel who walked among us. A rare and generous soul.
~ Cindy Reich
The world ,and for now, our Denver community ,need to know what an amazing man Noel was and what a legacy he has left.
He is and will still be an inspiration to everyone to go out of their way for others,no matter what and no matter where in this world.
In a way I see him on the level of Princess Diana and want the world to know this..
Susan Morrice, (Belize Natural Energy (BNE))
Noel has been a good friend, mentor and partner in Ethiopia work that RHCHP has been involved with over the past 6 years. RHCHP would not be in Ethiopia were it not for Noel challenging our school to live its mission and reach out to some of the most marginalized people in the world. Since 2003, thanks to Noel, we now have 75 Ethiopia program alumni and have our biggest group yet of 16 students getting ready to leave for Ethiopia in March of 2012. Through the years, he has gotten to know many of the groups and spoke to them about his commitment to Ethiopia and inspired students to not forget about the needs they witnessed.
This is one of the highlights of my work with him. In May of 2010, I visited Noel at Strings. I had an agenda to discuss with him a recent request from Project Mercy to Regis University which would hopefully lead to his support and partnership. Project Mercy is the NGO that Noel and Regis had now been partnered with for many years and done significant work with. Project Mercy asked Regis to help either renovate or build a new community school down the road from the Project Mercy grounds. The Project Mercy school was only capable of taking 200-250 kids in each year of over one thousand that hoped to get in. Those that didn’t get in attended the local community school that I was told was infested with termites, where many kids had to sit on dirt floors, and the overall structure of the buildings was in disrepair. Project Mercy told me it would take about $12,000 to renovate the current buildings or $80,000 to build an entirely new school building. I had serious concerns about raising $80,000 and stressed to Noel that Regis is not a development organization. We needed a partner like him and collaboration of other people or groups in Denver to make it happen. In Noels words, “I will be damned if we are going to raise $12,000 to renovate a community school in rural Ethiopia when in five years the building is going to be right back where we started. We are building a new school in Ethiopia. What do you think about that?” With that, we were off. Now, roughly a year and a half later, we together raised $80,000 which ended up leading to two bran new school buildings being built in rural Ethiopia. It is estimated that 500 kids will now have a dignified place to learn. Going forward, the lives and education of thousands of kids will be forever changes and made better because Noel. The buildings are due to be finished this month and this is another wonderful tribute to Noel. He had a canny ability to shoot for the stars, set big goals, tell everyone he knows about them and eventually the needed support would come. Wallah…more lives changed forever. Noel’s impact on the world will live on in so many meaningful ways. He is one of the kindest and most inspiring people I have ever met and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work together with him on what he loved most, making the world a better place.
Jeremy Lee, MNM Director, Center for Service Learning
Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions
After 25 years of knowing Noel Cunningham, it was obvious that he was a very special person that was larger than life. He was an inspiring leader and a true asset to the community. In all of the years visiting with Noel, he continuously provided me with sound advice. He would follow up each encounter with a strong handshake saying, “What can I do to help you,” a phrase that he undoubtedly used frequently. He was an empowering man and I will miss him dearly as a friend, a mentor and a fellow Irishman.
John Nallen (Nallen’s Irish Pub)