What do you say, think, feel, when one of your lifelong idols passes? And not only an idol, but a dear friend.
Chester Cunningham, known as Chet to his millions of fans all over the world, drifted away to meet his maker on March 14, 2017 at the age of 88. 88 productive, positive, and pro-active years. Every day of the more than a quarter century I knew him personally, after many former years admiring his work, Chet wrote, a statement easily acknowledged by his over 300 novels plus a handful of non-fiction works. As an aspiring writer myself, Chet was kind, helpful, and generous. He ran a twice-monthly writer’s group, which was an outgrowth of an adult education class he taught on writing. The group has been going strong since 1962.
When I first met Chet, at a WWA convention, he was caring for his sweet, beautiful wife, Rosie, who was confined to a wheelchair with Multiple Sclerosis. Showing deep heartfelt compassion—a trait every friend and acquaintance knew well—Chet cared for Rosie’s every need, even while attending writer’s conferences and other business. If you saw Chet, you saw Rosie. Rosie passed away in 2007 and Chet mourned, but his grief was buried by the sound of a keyboard clattering. He kept writing, many times doing a western a month—his favorite but far from only genre.
In 1994 he founded the non-profit corporation, San Diego Book Awards Association, to recognize local writers of books. A competition for the best book in 18 different categories is held yearly and $100 and certificates awarded to winners. From this has come the Read-4-Fun program aimed at 5th graders to encourage them to read more. Free books are given to students who do 200 pages of outside reading and turn in a book report. The Read-4-Fun committee now works with 15 schools and just over 2,000 students. In 2005 the group gave away more than 3,000 books.
After a long career being published by the most prestigious companies in the world, the western fell out of favor…but Chet was never one to take no for an answer, and continued to produce. Even at his age he embraced change, and with the advent of eBooks was soon dominating Amazon’s Classic Western bestseller lists. Many times over the last four years I marveled at seeing a dozen or more Cunningham novels among the top 100, and more than once 2 or 3 or more in the top ten. His times as Number One were too many to count. I was pleased to enjoy lunch with Chet at a Western Writers of America conference in San Diego and, as always, he was upbeat and entertaining. He will be sorely missed by his family: son Greg Cunningham, daughter Christine Ashworth, grandchildren Matt Cunningham, Chet and Tim Ashworth, as well as two great-grandchildren; by his peers; his admirers; and millions of fans. He lives on in an admirable, prodigious, and envied by all who tried to compete, body of work.