Leading from the front: $25,000 alum gift to tennis marks largest in history of the program

Grambling, La. – November 24, 2023 – In tennis, a volley always starts with a serve, and Grambling University Foundation Board member Juan Cunningham is hoping he has fired an ace with a recent $25,000 donation to the Grambling State tennis program, the largest single, private donation that the program has ever received.

Cunningham, a Grambling State University alumnus who was recently on campus as a member of the Golden Graduate Class of 1973, said it was a combination of college memories and seeing an obvious need that led to his decision to direct his donation toward the tennis program.

“There were tennis courts at Grambling when I was there,” Cunningham said. “Grambling had a tennis team, and while I didn’t play for it, I did play a lot of tennis while I was there. It was just playing with friends there and that kind of thing, but I’ve always been a tennis fan and loved playing on those courts.

“My wife and I met on the tennis court. We’re both very active in tennis. We’re fans. We play. We watch tournaments all over the world as fans. That’s my motivation.”

As a strong supporter who wants to see all of Grambling’s athletics programs succeed, Cunningham finds himself concerned about what he believes is a glaring need for the GSU tennis team.

“It was terribly disappointing to learn that we have to go to (Louisiana) Tech for our tennis activities. “What troubles me — that we have a tennis team but no real facility for them to use,” Cunningham said. “That’s like having a back porch but having to go to the neighbor’s house to do a barbecue. I’m a very serious tennis fan. I do play — I’ve played all of my life. Right now, in retirement I normally play three times a week. And the fact that my institution that I’m so proud of doesn’t have a tennis facility where it can host other institutions in tennis matches is disappointing.”

Hence the donation he hopes leads to GSU being able to eventually provide a facility of their own for Grambling State’s tennis team.

“I’m supportive of having a Grambling tennis program that is able to have its own facility,” Cunningham said. “That’s why I made my contribution which is only a drop in the bucket toward what is going to be required. But that’s what I had in mind with the donation. We should be able to host our own activities on our campus and not have to go to a neighboring institution.”

Cunningham, who spent a 42-1/2-year career at Norfolk Southern Corporation, retiring as vice president of human resources after graduating from GSU in 1973 with a degree in business management, believes the need for such a facility is important.

“I wanted to make a contribution to the school,” Cunningham said. “Normally my contribution would go to wherever there’s a need.

“But I started looking for a spot where I thought there was a deficit and this was one of those areas where there is not only a deficit, but I have a personal sense of embarrassment. This is something that I wanted to help correct. Whether or not I can make a difference, I don’t know.”

He hopes that difference might come in the form of encouraging fellow Grambling alumni to follow with donations of their own.

“I’ve got to be honest, that’s an area — in terms of giving back to our alma mater — something that we (GSU) as an institution have not excelled at. We’ve never made giving a part of our culture. As a career professional, I have worked with other institutions that have done a much better job of instilling that giving culture in their students and graduates.

“So I choose to lead by example and try to encourage others to do the same, that’s why I’m doing this.”

At Norfolk Southern, Cunningham saw some outside-the-box, culture-instilling thinking he hopes can become part of the Grambling State University culture.

“I ended up at Norfolk Southern after earning my business degree, which was odd because the division I went into at Norfolk Southern was an area where they recruited civil engineers,” Cunningham said. “But with a dearth of minority civil engineers, they more or less recruited a lot of Black students to their management-training program. It would have been a lot easier for me had I been a civil engineer, but I wasn’t.”

“But they extended outreach and brought in some non-civil engineers and provided us with the same kind of training they provided civil engineers.”

After seeing that kind of thinking succeed, Cunningham believes GSU’s outreach for alumni giving should begin on the student level.

“In my role as vice president of HR (at Norfolk Southern), we sent some of our students to developmental programs at Harvard, at Dartmouth, at the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee — some of the top schools in the country. And most of those schools begin to immediately solicit those candidates for contributions to the university and refer to them as an alumnus because of what that does in terms of encouraging support for their institutions.”

“We didn’t do it then when I was studying at Grambling and from what I can tell today we’re not doing all we should do to instill a culture of giving back to our institution. We’re very proud of it, but we don’t necessarily provide the kind of financial support that a lot of alumni do at other institutions. Sometimes you’ve got to lead from the start, and that’s my mindset in terms of this donation.”