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Living And Loving For 75 Years
In recognition of La Mesa’s Centennial, LaMesaToday.com will occasionally profile residents who shared much of that history in a series called "Centennial Citizens."
WEST LA MESA – Sixty three years ago, a young married couple from Ashland, Kentucky, packed up a truck and headed west. The trip took 10 days – in summer heat, in a car without air conditioning.
The family – including four young children – arrived in La Mesa on July 4, 1948.
Charles Cunningham was a musician with a gift for mechanical work. His beautiful bride Opal had older sisters who had made this move before and wanted their younger sister to follow.
This Sunday, Charles and Opal, now approaching their 94th birthdays, will be surrounded by their children and friends as they celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in the same home they have lived in since they arrived from Kentucky more than six decades ago.
In many ways, the Cunninghams have literally lived much of La Mesa’s 100 year history. They recall the open spaces and nurseries that surrounded their new home along La Mesa’s western border when they arrived in 1948.
A machinist by trade, Charles Cunningham worked first at Ryan Air in San Diego before moving on to other jobs. (Through World War II, when his skills required he fight in factories rather than front lines, Charles had built Navy guns in West Virginia).
Charles and Opal eventually had many jobs, but Charles always used his musical skills to round out his life and his income. As band leader of The Notables, he performed for years at clubs, weddings and civic events throughout San Diego. His daughter, Cheryl, joined him on keyboards for more than 30 of his 60 years as bandleader.
Last week, Charles and Opal, now living with the help of loving friends, family and aides, went about their daily routines in their well-kept home. Charles, now slowed a bit by strokes, still sat in the back room, big band music on the stereo, drumming on his set, which is permanently set up in this den.
“I used to be great at this,’’ Charles said. “Now, with the strokes, well, it’s harder.’’
Still, he kept good time, even with the fast pieces and Opal sat on a chair in the doorway watching her man, smiling and tapping her foot. Even after 75 years together, they enjoy each others’ company, joke, smile and laugh while reminding each other of elusive memories now decades old.
Charles, in fact, has been Opal’s man for more than 80 years.
They met in school and were sweethearts – he was the drum major and looked great in a uniform; she was smart and beautiful.
They were married by Charles' preacher Grandfather before age 20 and still recall with obvious joy the details of their wedding day.
“I had to,’’ he says now. “I knew we’d get back together later.’’
They did – staying at the home of an aunt who clearly struggled with their youth and new status.
“She wouldn’t let us sleep together,’’ Opal recalls laughing. No one thought the marriage would last, given their youth. But last they did and travel they would.
Years later, daughter Cheryl would write about the memorable first journey from Ashford to San Diego:
"It took 10 days and nights to reach what we now call home. It was a harrowing trip across the desert on Route 66 in the middle of June in 120 degrees weather. Opal would wet baby Marilyn's diapers and hang them in the car windows to give us a bit of fresh air. Marilyn nearly passed away from the heat. We were much like the 'Beverly Hillbillies'."
Like many who left the beautiful but quiet towns of rural Kentucky, Charles and Opal have always kept Kentucky in their minds. They still talk about the stores and early jobs they worked while finishing high school. And they’ve been back for visits over the years.
But these Kentuckians, like many easterners who helped swell the populations of Western towns like La Mesa and San Diego, came to love the soft warmth of sun-drenched Southern California. They never left -- even as the small town they had moved to grew to an increasingly urban city.
“When we came here 70th Street was like an alley,’’ Charles said. “Now look at it.’’
Still, the Cunninghams appreciate that amid the growth, it still feels like the town they moved to so many years ago. They love the neighborhood schools their children went through and speak fondly of their long membership with the First Baptist Church in downtown La Mesa and their many events with The Shriners over the years.
They don’t drive any more. A long road trip back to Kentucky is not in the cards. Still, like many of this city’s earliest generations, they think often of their two hometowns – one in Kentucky, another in California.
Do you know of local residents who have contributed in ways big and small to La Mesa’s history. E-mail your suggestions to La Mesa Centennial, OurTown@LaMesaToday.com