Lifelong Carson resident wouldn't have it any other way

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Shirley Cunningham, a 70-year-resident of Carson City, talks about the artistic and colorful garden she built in her back yard at Park Manor on Sunday afternoon.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Shirley Cunningham, a 70-year-resident of Carson City, talks about the artistic and colorful garden she built in her back yard at Park Manor on Sunday afternoon.

Shirley Cunningham came into existence in a Carson City few people remember.

She was born June 25,1934, in her family's home on a dirt road called North Curry Street. Little sister to Oliver and Gordon, Shirley attended kindergarten through eighth grade in the two-story Carson Elementary School that was at the corner of King and Division streets.

Then, Carson City had a population of 5,000, the Brewery Arts Center was just a brewery, Dr. Anderson made house calls, and the Market Spot grocery store at Fleischmann and Carson streets delivered. Her entire 70 years has been spent in Carson City, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm glad I was born and raised here," Cunningham said Sunday.

Her father from Eureka, Calif., worked for the Nevada Supreme Court, and her mother from Palisades, Calif., was a "wonderful cook." Cunningham remembers many nights when the family table was surrounded by guests. Some were boarders taken in to the tiny four bedroom home; others just knew Mrs. Pratt had a gift in the kitchen.

It was a time when women never wore slacks. They were always homemakers, and their husbands, the breadwinners.

At first, Cunningham seemed destined for such a fate. A year after she graduated high school, Miss Pratt married Ryland Cunningham and quickly gave birth to three children: Elaine, Larry and Coleen. All of them were born at Carson-Tahoe Hospital when it had only 35 beds, she said.

The children were enough to keep her busy, but Cunningham had a talent much sought-after in the capital city and a yearning for a little more.

"I was sort of a different cut out of the mold from my classmates. During the years I was married, I worked probably three or four different legislative sessions. I was hired in the Assembly as one of the few women who could take shorthand. It was an exciting job - I loved it," she said.

Ryland was working for the Market Spot grocery store then, and that parlayed into a market bookkeeping job for Cunningham at home.

"We've sure changed our way of life," she said, recalling when neighbors could charge groceries with their name alone and Ryland was kept busy, among other things, delivering orders.

In 1965, she took a job four hours a day as office manager of Carson Convalescent Center on Highway 50 East. Three years later, her marriage dissolved, as Cunningham's professional life was taking off.

In 1974, Medicare came along, and the convalescent center sent Cunningham to Reno for classes. Gov. Mike O'Callahan appointed her to sit on the state's nursing home-licensing board.

"The board had three men and myself," she recalled. "It seems everything I've done in my life, I've always come out on top."

After 12 years at the nursing home, she applied for a job with the state health department.

"Sixteen men and myself applied for that position. One was a dentist, and two were pharmacists, and I got it. The only other woman in the department was a registered nurse."

In six months, Cunningham was promoted a grade.

"My profession really occupied most of my life after that," she said. "Once I got into the health department, it was so damn interesting. I worked my way up the ropes from the bottom. It was a fascinating job for me."

Then came a promotion to inspect hospitals for quality care. Eventually, she became the chief of the bureau for licensing and certification for health- care facilities.

Her jobs took her places, including Las Vegas; San Francisco; Coronado, Calif.; Baltimore and Boston.

But no matter what strides she made professionally, Cunningham said, she always came home to Carson City.

"The best part of my life was being born and having been raised in Carson City, having a wonderful mother and father and two loving brothers. My children are my life, and my granddaughter, Kristen, is a beautiful child," she said.

"Carson was a wonderful place to grow up, a wonderful small town where everyone knew everybody and everyone loved everybody. I'd never leave Carson."

Contact F.T. Norton at or 881-1213.


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