March 21, 2022
City Council member, mayor and more: Monroe County Extension administrative specialist Diane Cunningham serves constituents for nearly 45 years
By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Cunningham has worked for Monroe County extension for almost 45 years
- Current mayor of Clarendon; former Clarendon City Council member
- Winner of 2017 Division of Agriculture Outstanding Classified Support Personnel Award
(Newsrooms: With additional art at https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjzGABF)
CLARENDON, Ark. — For more than four decades, Diane Cunningham has served the people of Monroe County. During that time, she has served both as a Clarendon City Council member and — currently — the city’s mayor. And for nearly 45 years, she has helped generations of farmers and their families as an administrative specialist at the Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service.
The Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, maintains offices in each of the state’s 75 counties. Each office provides residents with non-biased, research-based information to improve their economic wellbeing and the quality of their lives.
Born and bred
A “born and bred” resident of Clarendon, Cunningham began working for Monroe County extension in June 1977. She started as a clerk and typist, working with the county’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) aides. Cunningham said that about six years later, the extension secretary planned to leave her job and encouraged Cunningham to apply for the position.
“At that time, we had to know shorthand, and I’d had a little bit of speed writing, but I didn’t know shorthand,” Cunningham said. “But the secretary knew it really well, so she helped me. She told me that about once a week, in the evening, ‘you come to my house, and I’ll show you.’ She did, and I took the test, and I was the only applicant that passed.”
A good fit for the family
Cunningham said she originally applied to work for extension because of the flexibility it provided for her young family.
“When I started, I was 21, I was married and had two little girls,” Cunningham said. “The job was so convenient, it was right at home, so if something went wrong, I could run to the school.”
In the years since, Cunningham said her favorite elements of the job have been interacting with the public and helping clients solve problems.
“The kids of the farmers I had when I first started are farming now and also some of their grandchildren,” Cunningham said.
She said she has also enjoyed learning about the breadth of the farming community and how it operates. As the office employee who’s worked there the longest, she regularly helps new agents learn the responsibilities of the job and how extension works, just as she was taught by the secretary and county agents when she first arrived.
“When I started, I wrote down everything the extension secretary told me I needed to do and how it worked,” Cunningham said. “Then I had good agents in the office too, they helped me a lot. The guys were really good about helping me get started and telling me what needed to be done and keeping me going.”
A decorated past
During her tenure at extension, Cunningham has received multiple awards for her service. In 2017, she received the Division of Agriculture Outstanding Classified Support Personnel Award, and in 2002, she was named Support Staff Member Employee of the Year. She is also a longtime member of the Beta Chapter of Chi Epsilon Sigma, the national extension support staff fraternity, where she said she’s held “nearly every office.” In 2018, Cunningham’s staff chair nominated her for the Meritorious Support Service award from Epsilon Sigma Phi, a national organization for extension system professionals.
Cunningham said she appreciated being recognized for her hard work.
“It makes you feel that the work you’ve done hasn’t gone unnoticed,” she said. “And even if it wasn’t an award, just sometimes a ‘thank you’ is good. It makes me feel wanted, or needed, and it makes me want to keep going.”
Cunningham’s dedication to her community goes beyond her work with extension. In 2007, she was named Clarendon Citizen of the Year. She has served on numerous boards, including the Mid-Delta Community Health Center board and the Community Foundation board. Cunningham currently represents Monroe County on the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District (CAPDD) board of directors and is active in the local cemetery association.
A voice for the people
Cunningham represented Ward One on the Clarendon City Council for 16 years, until the council appointed her mayor in January to fill the vacancy left by the retiring former mayor. Cunningham had been serving as vice mayor at the time. She said her love for the city motivated her to serve her constituents and be the “person to speak for them.”
Clarendon’s mayor is a part-time position, so Cunningham said she usually goes to her office at City Hall on her lunch break to check in on her duties. After she finishes for the day at the extension office, she returns to City Hall to work another hour or two.
In a recent visit to the Monroe County office, Chuck Culver, Division of Agriculture interim vice president, kidded Cunningham about her two jobs.
“You get to work all day in public service and go home and work all night in public service,” Culver said.
Cunningham is already being encouraged to run for mayor when the current term expires at the end of this year, but she said this will depend on when she retires from extension. She said she plans to retire by the end of 2023.
In her free time, Cunningham enjoys reading, working outside and do-it-yourself projects.
“I love working in my yard, and I love flowers,” she said. “I like to do anything hands-on. I just love to plant something and watch it grow, in all perspectives.”
Cunningham said she knows she will leave large shoes to fill when she retires.
“I know I can be replaced, but I will definitely be missed around here,” she said. “It will be a whole new ballgame.”
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uark.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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