JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As a procession passed through Jacksonville on Friday, many stood and paid their respects to Lt. Chris Cunningham, a man who is remembered for his commitment to his family and the community as a police officer.
Cunningham died of COVID-19 complications after spending weeks in a hospital. He was in the Navy and a commanding officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
His family is heartbroken after losing an otherwise healthy father of five children. His eldest son and namesake was there as his father’s fellow officers escorted the lieutenant through Downtown Jacksonville.
“He’s been there with me through birth. Taught me everything from teaching me how to ride a bike to teaching me how to change oil,” the younger Cunningham said. said. “Every aspect of my life, he has always been there. He never left me hanging. Never left me suffer (or) let me go through anything by myself.”
Cunningham’s son recalled playing football in high school at Atlantic Coast.
“My senior year we played Sandalwood. I scored twice and my dad was on both ends. I scored the first time, he was right there. High five. And I remember the second one. He was right there too. He didn’t miss anything,” Cunningham’s son said. “He was so proud.”
The 48-year-old was thinking of retirement, according to his son, after decades of service to his community.
“He was talking about getting to retire and keep traveling. He said he wanted to live life,” the younger Cunningham said.
On July 2, he learned his father contracted the Coronavirus, which the Sheriff’s Office believes he contracted while on the job.
“I thought, just reading by the symptoms, he will get through it like everybody else. Like he will hit this, you know, because he worked out and I’m thinking he was in good health,” Cunningham’s son said. “They had to call the EMT and get him in the hospital. I would have never thought of him going in there, that he wouldn’t return home, that would be his last time leaving the house. It just doesn’t seem real.”
Lt. Cunningham passed away on Aug. 5, leaving behind a wife he adored, five children and three grandchildren.
“Just knowing I will never get a text or another phone call or just anything from him. It’s still hard to take in,” his son said. “The other day I wanted to call. I had this urge to call him and tell him something, and I got to his contact and I was like, wait, he’s not going to be on the other side to answer that phone.”
He continued, “Me bearing his name, I am going to make sure that I live up and beyond the expectation he set on me.”
The pain of the loss is also felt by those who worked alongside the lieutenant. Retired Lt. Larry Jones remembered the moment he learned that Cunningham had passed away.
“Sadness. Depressed,” he said. “Just (a) good soul that was lost that we will never see again.”
Lt. Evander Collier retired after serving 31 years with JSO. Collier and Cunningham were coworkers, friends and played sports together.
Collier said he didn’t think COVID-19 would take Cunningham’s life.
“I was hoping that he was going to be one of those ones that was probably on a ventilator for whatever amount of time -- two weeks, 30 days, but he was going to pull through because he was one of the ones that never expect something like that would ever happen to him,” Collier said.
Juanita Dixon, president of the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Police for JSO, said Cunningham was also a role model for other police officers.
“We are so grateful for the example that he made for us as African Americans in law enforcement, and we are going to miss him,” Dixon said. “We are going to try to continue on the legacy that he left for us and that was one of fairness, kindness.”