Note: This is the second in a series of All-Star portraits celebrating Martin County Democrats who have made lasting contributions to the Martin County Democratic Party. A conversation with Bob and Louise took place in their home in October 2021 and is the basis for this article. **Click on pictures to enlarge and obtain info.**
Bob and Louise Cunha
Bob: “Hi. Who are you voting for? I’m voting for Kennedy. I’m a Democrat.”
Louise: “I’m voting for Nixon. I’m a Republican.”
And thus it began 61 years ago...
It was September 17, 1960, and Louise Tilford had arrived at Northeastern University in Boston only nine days earlier to begin her college education. She was a 17-year-old girl from a small town in Vermont who had dreamed of going to college in the big city, and through her dedication and hard work she had finally realized this dream.
On this fateful night of the university’s Freshman Welcoming Dance, sophomore Bob Cunha knew that the dance would be a fine opportunity to meet a new girl on campus and so he planned to attend. Having been interested in politics for most of his young life, Bob had crafted a rather unusual “pick-up line,” as Louise calls it – asking the girl of his choice whether she was voting for Kennedy – and he was ready to put his creativity to use. When Bob arrived, he spotted Louise in the long line outside the gymnasium. She had beautiful red hair and was wearing a pretty yellow sweater, and Bob was immediately attracted to her. He says it was love at first sight. He approached Louise with his unusual but distinctive introduction, Louise responded in kind, and they then entered the dance floor together where the more worldly Bob taught Louise how to dance the Mexican Hat Dance which was playing
at the time. Politics was put aside for the rest of the dance that night – a feat rarely repeated in the years to follow.
Different Politics, Different Backgrounds
In those weeks following the dance, Bob and Louise spent a great deal of time together and soon recognized they had different family backgrounds which influenced their views on life and politics. Bob’s father was an illegal immigrant from Lisbon, Portugal who set foot in the US at New Bedford in 1914. A Merchant Marine, Anthony Cunha overstayed his visa and for a time was an illegal who risked deportation but ultimately was granted amnesty through a mass proclamation from President Herbert Hoover. Bob’s mother was from the Azores but, since her father had lived in the US for a time, she was a citizen.
Bob was the youngest of seven children, and his parents had little money. In fact, his family lived on the first floor of a three-decker in Somerville, MA, just outside Boston. There were three bedrooms: one for his parents, one for his four sisters, and one for Bob and his brother, the other brother having moved out by the time Bob came along. For Bob, being raised in this impoverished environment made him aware of those who provided help to his family and to his community. He saw first-hand that elected officials from the Democratic Party were the ones who advocated for his poor family and neighbors. In return, these Democrats secured the support of Bob’s family and neighbors. In fact, at his mother’s urging, Bob began going door-to-door handing out campaign information for his Democratic Party alderman when Bob was only 12 years old and ever since then he has been active in Democratic Party politics in one form or another. One example of a politician helping his constituent that Bob fondly recalls occurred when Congressman Tip O’Neil helped Bob’s brother, who had returned from the Korean War, secure a job with Boston Edison, a job his brother held until his retirement. This was a time, as Bob says, when politicians actually served the public and acted on behalf of their constituents.
In contrast to Bob’s city life, Louise grew up in the countryside of Vermont along with her two younger brothers. Her parents were both college-educated, identified as Republicans, and provided Louise and her brothers with some comforts of middle-class life in 1950’s America. She attended the Methodist church, took her high school studies seriously, and prepared for life beyond East Middlebury, VT. Politics played no role in her life back then. She had her fill with family, church, school, and friends. Nonetheless, she felt the lure of the big city and when the college years arrived, she chose to attend Northeastern University.
After Bob’s conversation starter at the dance, politics did not rear its head again until a few weeks later when Louise invited Bob to a rally that Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon was having nearby. Louise was supporting Nixon over JFK, and so Bob took this opportunity at the rally to educate Louise on the differences between the two major parties, saying that Democrats were the ones who stood up for the poor and working class, not the Republicans. Having been raised as a Methodist, Louise quickly understood that Democrats rather than Republicans more closely aligned with the teachings of Christianity that she knew about and cared about – serving the poor and disenfranchised. It was after this revelation that Louise switched her party’s allegiance to the Democratic Party, and she has never looked back.
Courtship, College, and Marriage
After meeting at the dance just nine days after the school year began, Bob and Louise were a constant pair. By Christmas they were both talking marriage and, in fact, on January 1st Louise officially proposed by asking Bob if he would marry her. They continued with their education at Northeastern for a few years and married in December 1963. When Louise later gave birth to their first child, she stopped her studies at Northeastern and became a full-time mom. Bob received his degree in 1964 and started teaching social studies at Sharon High in Sharon, MA. It is notable that Louise never lost sight of her goal of a college education, though, and after their three children were older and she had gotten a job, she attended night school and earned her degree from Northeastern in 1982.
Involvement and Activism in MA and GA
During the college years, Bob and Louise heard the drumbeat of war. The country had gone through the World Wars and the Korean War, but now pro-war forces had their sights on Vietnam. They enthusiastically became anti-war protesters at Northeastern even before the war began and continued their opposition to the war after Bob began teaching. He even urged 30 teachers at Sharon High to sign a letter against the war and this was published in the Boston Globe. Since the Vietnam War was controversial, many administrators felt this public display of protest was an embarrassment to the Sharon school system and some even called for Bob’s dismissal. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Bob taught many years thereafter.
While teaching, Bob became a member of the teacher’s union and witnessed the vital role that the union had in improving the lives of teachers, and it jived with being a Democrat. He assumed a leadership role in the union. In fact, Bob also was a leader of the union during the only time teachers there went on strike…and the union won. His lengthy career in public education and his work in leading the union in a fight for better working conditions for teachers are two of the primary areas Bob can look back on today with pride and satisfaction.
During their years together, Bob and Louise lived mostly in and around Canton, Massachusetts. One of Bob’s rules for living was that upon moving to a different area he soon contacted the local Democratic Party. He wanted to meet local Democrats and he wanted to get involved in local politics and support the goals of the Democratic Party. In the various places they lived, Bob held leadership positions within the local party and worked to get Democratic candidates elected to office. He did the same when he and Louise later moved to Athens, Georgia to be near their children. He impressed his fellow Democrats so much that within a year he became Chair of the DEC in Athens. He focused on fundraising, getting out the vote, and getting young people and minorities to join the local Democratic Party. In fact, familiar to Martin Democrats, his fundraising efforts led to the establishment of two primary events: the Fall Classic and Spring Fling.
A highlight of Bob’s Democratic work occurred in 1999 when Bob became determined to have civil rights icon and Georgia House Representative John “good trouble” Lewis appear as the headline speaker for his Athens DEC fundraiser. Bob says he frequently called Lewis’s Atlanta office until Lewis’s secretary finally said Rep. Lewis would attend the event. With only three weeks to prepare with Lewis as headliner, it was a hectic time, but Bob organized the event and over 500 people attended. It was a remarkably successful event for Athens Democrats, and it provided Bob with the treasured memory of meeting and speaking with Representative Lewis.
During this time in Athens and previously in Massachusetts, Louise supported Bob in his union and Democratic Party pursuits. However, as a mother and worker, she had little time to get too involved herself with Democratic Party matters. Her motto was “one thing at a time” and she carefully planned what civic and religious groups she devoted time to during those years. She, like Bob, always felt a need to serve, to help make people’s lives better, and she accomplished that through her church activities and through volunteerism with League of Women’s Voters and organizations that focused on such interests as affordable housing, farm workers, and voting rights.
The Cunhas Come to Stuart !
After seven years in Athens, Bob and Louise decided to move to Stuart in 2001. Bob knew old teacher friends from Massachusetts who had relocated to Stuart and both Bob and Louise were ready to live near the coast again. As usual with a new move, Bob contacted the DEC in Stuart and he and Louise became involved, though for a while Louise’s job kept her participation to a minimum. When Louise retired from Volunteers for Medicine, they both immersed themselves into the local political scene.
Along with Jackie Trancynger and Barbara and Richard Learned, they established the Martin County Democratic Club in 2003 and Louise was president of the club for seven years, focusing on getting volunteers for phone calling and canvassing and establishing two big fundraisers each year (not surprisingly called the Fall Classic and Spring Fling) to provide financial support to the DEC. Louise was also instrumental in establishing the Holiday Party, a joint effort of the DEC, Democratic Club, and Women’s Club. Both during and after her stint as Democratic Club president, Louise has been heavily involved in supporting Democratic candidates by engaging in phone banking, canvassing, and mailings. She and Bob have both served as precinct co-captains for the past decade, where they encouraged neighbors to vote and learn about the candidates. A peacemaker and optimist, Louise has greatly influenced Martin Democrats over the years since her retirement.
As for Bob, he became Treasurer of the DEC for a couple of years and the Treasurer of the Democratic Club for nine years as well as precinct co-caption along with Louise. During Louise’s leadership roles with Martin Democrats, Bob has fully supported Louise’s involvement, just as she did in the earlier years when Bob was active in Massachusetts and Georgia.
Today, Bob is 82 and Louise is a young 78, who still plans annual week-long long-distance hikes on the Florida Trail. After 20 years here in Stuart, Bob and Louise continue to support the DEC and Democratic Club and attend meetings whenever possible. Louise, especially, is still involved in phone calling and writing to support Democratic candidates. Furthermore, twice a year she waxes the vinyl floors at Democratic headquarters to ensure they stay clean. Both Bob and Louise are still committed to social justice issues and, hearkening back to their antiwar protests from the 60’s, they will enthusiastically attend a rally that supports women’s rights, BLM, the environment, Democratic candidates, and other issues that Democrats support. Throughout their lives they have wanted to make the world better for those that were hurting – whether it be immigrants, racial minorities, farm workers, the poor, LGBTQ, or any other group that is disadvantaged. They have demonstrated repeatedly that having strong principles and compassion throughout your life makes you a better leader and community activist.
We Democrats in Martin County owe Bob and Louise a great debt of gratitude for their dedication to Martin Democrats during the past 20 years. From co-founding the Democratic Club to holding leadership positions for years to providing principled counsel to those who followed them, Bob and Louise are a class act. We are so fortunate in Martin County to have had them in our midst during these past decades providing such inspiring leadership, activism, and guidance. For all this, Bob and Louise Cunha truly belong in the Martin County Democrats All Star club!
More pictures....Click to enlarge and start slideshow.