By: Jan Mazotti with Gayle Dendinger and Mitch Jelniker Issue: Resource Management Section: Remembering Noel Cunningham
December 16, 1949 – December 1, 2011
Giving is something our parents teach us when we are small children. We are reminded every day to give and share with others. And it is easier to give when you can see someone and look at the difference you made in his or her life.
Making an impact and reaching out to people is tried and tested every day. But how do you give to people you can’t see and who you may never know, or the impact you might have in their life? Who are these people, how do you reach them, what do they need and how long can you realistically give?
I doubt Noel Cunningham ever thought twice about what he could give. He just did. His inspiration stemmed from being a serial entrepreneur, always figuring out new approaches and strategies for business. His skill was being able to combine what he knew about business with the fundamentals of being a good and decent human being; and he always kept these two characteristics in balance. Work was never work for Noel; it was always interesting and fun.
When I think of him now, three words immediately resonate in me; elegance, humility and impact. Forever seared into my memory, I will always remember Noel walking with his head tilted down slightly, graciously humbled by those around him. When you were with Noel he was always polite and made you feel like you were the most important person, because to him, you were.
As an entrepreneur, Noel constantly surrounded himself with people. When he started his restaurant, Strings, it was the relationships he forged that ultimately saved his fledgling business. Today Strings is a neighborhood staple and a place where friends gather to share in the truly aesthetic experiences of life. Strings helped him to be recognized as Businessman of the Year during one of the most desperate economic times, but his ingenuity and passion ambitiously pushed him through, weathered but not broken.
Noel, without prejudice helped launch ICOSA by sharing his ideas, his wisdom, his guidance, and offering his moral support. He let us use his restaurant as meeting space, and graciously displayed our magazines for patrons to peruse.
As a “newbie” in the community, I was a little apprehensive to meet Noel, but what I quickly learned was that Noel was everyone’s friend. He was visionary. He was resourceful. He was a connector. He was a collaborator. He was a doer—he got it done. No excuses!
We lost that dear, dear friend on December 1, 2011 to suicide. And while we're troubled and saddened by his death by suicide, we know the way he lived touched thousands of lives in a positive way.
Noel and Tammy Cunningham
are known globally as much for their humanitarian work as for the amazing dining experience they offer at Strings Restaurant and 240 Union. As if elegance and indulgence needed a balance, the couple turned much of their attention over the years to the poorest of the poor—they focused on the children of Yetebon, Ethiopia, most of whom can’t get clean drinking water, much less a decent meal or a pair of shoes.
The Cunningham Foundation was founded in 2003 with the mission of helping the courageous people of the impoverished areas of Ethiopia to help themselves. The Foundation was the vision of the Cunningham’s who were struck by both the poverty and the amazing resilience they witnessed in a visit to Project Mercy in Yetebon, Ethiopia nearly 10 years ago. Since its inception, the vision has grown beyond belief.
Cunningham had a genial face, graying beard and kind eyes, and was an icon in Denver. Born in Dublin in 1949, raised in Los Angeles, trained at the Savoy Hotel in London, Noel once worked as a chef at Touch, an exclusive supper club in Beverly Hills.
In 1984, when there was a famine in Ethiopia, the idea was raised to hold a benefit for the victims, but the owner refused. Noel vowed that when he was in charge, things would be different—and they were. The Cunningham’s, married since 1990, were passionate about all of the projects they took on. Tammy went to Ethiopia in 1998 with Project C.U.R.E., where she was moved and motivated by the need and poverty she saw all around her. As a result of that visit, the Cunningham’s sponsored a container of medical supplies for Ethiopia through Project C.U.R.E. and so began a long-term relationship with the organization. Says W. Douglas Jackson, Project C.U.R.E.’s CEO and president, "There was a unique joy that Noel Cunningham found in giving to others. I watched that joy light up his warm Irish eyes as we sat together at a shabby wooden table in some little village in the middle of Ethiopia. We talked about solutions to poverty, about the importance of compassion, about healing and caring—and giving. It energized him. Noel used his restaurant and his reputation as a weapon in the struggle against need and unfairness. When he thought a connection between people would change the future, Noel would ignite his network, without guile or greed and never expecting anything for himself in return. When that happened, things moved. The world became a different place. American presidents and African paupers were all treated with dignity and respect because Noel Cunningham's eyes of joy peered into the soul of others. I will cherish the time we had to work together, the drop of difference we made in a sea of need. And I will grieve what might have been. Beyond his effectiveness and his example, Noel was a friend. I will miss him. We all will."
Or, there is Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation® the premier culinary benefit dedicated to making sure no kid grows up hungry. Each spring and summer, the nation’s hottest chefs and mixologists donate their time, talent and passion at nearly 40 events across the United States and Canada, with one goal in mind—to raise the critical funds needed to end childhood hunger. So with the help of many of his close friends, including restaurant critic Pat Miller, Noel launched the program which has raised almost $80 million for 450 groups in the U.S. focused on ending hunger. “Noel and I became friends 12 years ago when he approached me about chairing Share Our Strength, a grassroots fundraiser which was supported through the efforts of local restaurants, Coors Brewing, and other community volunteer organizations. Through the years we grew the event and eventually moved the venue to Coors Field where we welcomed over 2,000 patrons. As a result of us working together we became very close friends. My husband, Leo Kiely and Noel immediately bonded because of their big Irish hearts and great senses of humor. Through the years Leo and I have shared many a wonderful evening planning and dreaming about Noel's latest way to save the world. Noel has never said ‘NO’ to anyone who has asked for help. I know that he is in heaven looking down and asking God to bless the efforts of those who must carry on with the good work that he began in Denver,” said Susan Kiely, the founder of Women With A Cause Foundation.
In 2001, on a tour sponsored by Share Our Strength, the Cunningham’s fell in love with Yetebon, a village in Ethiopia. Yetebon, at almost 8,000 feet, is the home of Project Mercy, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency relief aid, operates a school, an orphan support program, and now, a well-staffed community hospital.
Project Mercy is run by Marta Gargre-Tsadick and her husband Deme Tekle-Wold. When Marta and Tammy met, they bonded quickly, and since 2003, the Cunningham’s have used their Foundation to help “the courageous people of the impoverished areas of Ethiopia help themselves.” The couple was struck “by both the poverty and the amazing resilience of the people.” At first, Noel was impatient with the speed of change in Yetebon—he wanted to change things quickly. But stepped back and let things happen at a pace more comfortable to the families there, all the while rallying support for the area from people all over the world.
In 2003, the couple took their first group trip to Yetebon. Working with Cindy Brown, owner of www.cindybeads.com, the group decided to teach the Yetebon students to make limited edition bracelets. This project would teach the students a skill, while helping them maintain some quality of life. In year one, the group returned to the U.S. with 500 bracelets that raised $50,000 for the Medhane-Alem School. Since then, the bracelets have generated more than $500,000 with the generous support of volunteers across the U.S. and abroad. In fact, the 2008 bracelet sales generated enough money to complete the building of the orphanage dormitory and move over 100 students from a rickety cow shed.
Brennan Boehne was part of the 2010 trip to Ethiopia and he swears it changed his life. At just 18 years old, he says he was spoiled and, “Only cared about becoming rich. Typically, I would only work with community service organizations because it looked better on my resume and made me look good.” What Boehne learned after his trip with the Cunningham’s is what is so meaningful. “All of these heart-wrenching experiences took a toll on me emotionally. Most people don’t think I am emotional whatsoever. To be honest, I probably cried more than any other person there. I even cried more than the girls. The other thing that I loved there was the love, that was spread by everyone. The Cunningham’s and Ethiopia changed my life,” he said.
As a result of the bracelet project, some of the Yetebon students learned the art of glass bead making, enabling them to make a living. At the urging of Jeannie Ritter, wife of former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, the heart beads would be made in school colors to sell to high schools across the country. At $25 each, the multi-year project has been highly successful, raising over $75,000 for U.S. students to visit Ethiopia.
Because of the grassroots efforts of the Cunnigham’s, the school in Yetebon has more than doubled in size—to 1,200-plus students from first through tenth grade—many walking up to five miles to receive an education, meals, books, tuition and shoes. As Noel always said of his travels to Ethiopia at the holidays, “It is an amazing place, where there is a lot to be thankful for. It is all around us.” These HOPE bracelets were recognized by renowned jeweler, David Yurman, who awarded Noel with the David Yurman Humanitarian Award for his efforts to help children, an award that had been previously received by Steven Spielberg and Elton John.
Marta Gabre-Tsadick and Deme Tekle-Wold, on behalf of all the children and staff at Project Mercy in Yetabon, Ethiopia said at the news of Noel’s death, “Over 13 years ago Noel and Tammy visited us in Yetabon, Ethiopia while on a fact finding trip for international relief. Since then, they have visited annually at Thanksgiving. In the spring they coordinated students and teachers from Regis University, Johnson and Wales University and Denver Metropolitan high schools. He has held fundraisers to support various Project Mercy endeavors. He and Tammy have brought skilled artisans to Yetabon and they have taught many of our students how to produce beautiful one-of-a-kind bracelets. Over the years these bracelets have been sold at Strings and through the internet. Noel has been passionate in his efforts at Project Mercy and this is his legacy. We will miss him dearly from the bottom of our hearts.”
“I would describe his time and progress there as pure joy. Listening to the stories of the time he spent there made his eyes sparkle and his heart shine,” said ICOSA publisher Gayle Dendinger. “For over 10 years, he traveled back and forth, noting progress each time he returned, but it was after one trip specifically that he told me he noticed something different. At first he couldn’t put his finger on what had changed but then it came to him—there was no more crying." After years of determination, Noel and the friends who had accompanied him finally saw the enormously positive difference they had made for a community of 100,000-plus people.
The Cunningham’s wanted to inspire and engage Colorado students to be involved and reach out to students like themselves in the developing world, so they launched 4 Quarters for Kids to raise money to feed and clothe 1,500 students at Project Mercy. It was another ambitious program that has proven successful.
And there was the I Remember Momma Brunch. Each Mother's Day, Noel, Tammy and the entire Strings staff would serve moms who might otherwise be alone a lavish, free brunch. “Noel told me whatever he had become it was thanks to his mother,” said KMGH 7NEWS Anchor Mitch Jelniker.
He always shied away from any recognition, so in 2002, 7NEWS surprised Noel at the Mother’s Day brunch. Sneaking up on him was a must. Earlier that year 7NEWS was secretly working with Tammy to honor Noel with the 7NEWS 7Everyday Hero award for outstanding volunteers. Unfortunately, when Tammy stepped away from the computer, he sat down and discovered our secret e-mails about the honor. Noel promptly called the TV station and was less than pleased—he flat out told us not to honor him. “He never did anything for show—he served others because it was the right thing to do. He was the epitome of a 7Everyday Hero,” said Jelniker. We decided to honor Noel anyway. We figured with TV cameras rolling, he wouldn't dare get upset with us again. Our ploy worked, though Noel always promised to get even. Cunningham believed in the motto, “Dream big! Maybe big things will happen.” Brent Weaver, Managing Partner at HotPress Web has worked with Noel for several years. Weaver commented, “Noel was my mentor and my buddy. He had the single greatest impact on who I have become in the world of business and philanthropy. Since I met him, I can barely imagine a day that has gone by where we didn't text, email, chat about an upcoming philanthropy project, think about the next move for the restaurant's marketing, or shoot the sh&%. He instilled in me that the world takes care of you when you give—that's just how he saw it.”
Although Noel engaged with Weaver philanthropically, he also taught him how to connect with people in a deeper way—even more than traditional networking. “We worked on projects together constantly with some of the most amazing members of our community. When I met him, I was in my mid-20s, so just a kid in the business world. He invited me to galas, governors mansions, and presidential introductions. He helped me define my business, my views on the community, and understanding how you can engage with people beyond profits. And, he also made the best damn chicken nuggets this planet has to offer,” he said.
And just in the last year, Noel launched “A Dinner of Unconditional Love” which benefited the amazing work of Dr. Rick Hodes, an American doctor living in Ethiopia. The dinner raised almost $500,000 for Hodes’ work in Ethiopia where they treat children with spinal deformities as a result of spinal tuberculosis. Moreover, Cunningham and many of his connected inner-circle worked to bring Oscar-winning Prudence Mabhena to Denver to get her life-altering surgery to help her cope with arthrogryposis, a birth defect that left her with amputated limbs.
ICOSA collaborator Rebecca Saltman remembers him this way. “Noel’s entrepreneurial spirit and extraordinary vision encouraged my social entrepreneurship career choices, as well as exponentially broadening my perspectives. He was someone that would see an injustice, come up with a way to address it, and then figure out how to enact a solution. I remember him passionately talking about what he wanted to do to solve the problems of Haiti after the earthquake, saying simply, 'We need to provide jobs by building up the coast with hotels and tourism.' He said it in such a matter of fact way—like this would be no problem whatsoever—and everyone listening to him would have easily followed him to help, while riding the wave of his enthusiasm. Noel was a beacon in my life as well as in many others’. I will not let that light be extinguished. Thank you Noel, I am so grateful.” This last week while we have thought a lot about Noel, I have thought about the thousands of people that are forever changed by Noel’s passion, persistence and care. Noel had the ability to take his dreams and through hard work, transform them into inspiring stories for others on how to accomplish whatever it is that you set your mind to. Noel mastered how to survive, grow and evolve through good times and bad; and he knew how to be tender, compassionate and kind to whomever he met. “He will be missed forever as a model citizen, an enigmatic entrepreneur and a fantastic philanthropist, but I will also miss him as a man of great character and most of all a dear friend,” said Dendinger.
“Noel was a remarkable person—to me and to all. He was my best friend, the brother I never had, and the most caring and charitable man to everyone. I will miss his smile, his chatter, his way of getting things done his way, and what he ‘tinks.’ He will be sadly missed by all—but mostly by me. A best friend for 27 years can never be replaced. There is only one Noel,” remarked Pat Miller. “In no way does this diminish the significance of all his contributions,” said former Governor Bill Ritter to the Denver Post. “Not a single good act that Noel Cunningham did on behalf of others is changed by this.”
Many may wonder why governors, mayors and the media are making such a big deal about a modest man who said he expressed his love through food. The answer is simple: Noel Cunningham made all of us better, no matter rich or poor. And while we may sit and wonder “why” this fantastic and caring man is gone, we cannot forget—nor should we—the hope, the courageous spirit, the generosity, and the joie de vivre of Noel Cunningham. You will be missed by all of us!
To learn more about the Cunningham Foundation, visit www.cunninghamfoundation.org or to buy a bracelet or pendant, please visit www.cunninghamfoundation.org/buy-a-hope-bracelet.