Dr. Joseph N. Cunningham, Jr., who headed Maimonides Medical Center’s for nearly three decades and whose yearly parties at his upstate New York farm delighted the hospital’s residents and their families, died suddenly on Feb. 21 at the age of 70.
The renowned physician pioneered advanced techniques in both the cardiac and general surgical programs, according to Martin D. Payson, chairman of the board of the hospital and Pamela S. Brier, its president and chief executive officer. Most recently, Cunningham had held the position of senior vice president of strategic initiatives.
“Joe was a dynamic leader, forward-thinking physician, and warm and compassionate man,” Payson and Brier said in a statement. “He will be deeply missed by the many people whose lives he touched.”
Lillian Fraidkin, a close friend of Cunningham’s and the chief of staff at Maimonides, said Cunningham was more than simply a heart surgeon and administrator. He was a man with a giant heart of his own, who energetically embraced the hospital community and the borough as a whole.
Annual parties for surgical residents at Maimonides and the entire surgical staff and their families, held at Cunningham’s upstate New York farm, were gala events that reflected Cunningham’s own larger-than-life approach, she said.
“He provided hayrides for the kids,” Fraidkin said. “He would hire a group to do the barbecuing, and a band. He would stock the pond with fish so the kids could go fishing. He also rented a bus so everyone from here could get there. His yearly party was famous at Maimonides”
People who worked with Cunningham received “Swamp Fox” tee shirts from him, a nod to his own southern upbringing.
“You’d meet people wearing Swamp Fox shirts in another state, and ask, how did you know Joe?” Fraidkin said. “That shirt connected so many people.”
State Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge) recalled that he and Cunningham had worked together to advance medical care in southwestern Brooklyn.
“We have lost one of the best,” Golden said. “On numerous occasions, I was proud to have sponsored symposiums where Dr. Cunningham was the featured speaker. At those events, and throughout his career in medicine, Dr. Cunningham provided insight and medical care so to improve the health of countless individuals throughout our city, state, nation and even the world. We will surely miss him in the community and his medical expertise at Maimonides.”
Cunningham came to Maimonides from New York University Medical Center in 1982. He was graduated from University of Alabama School of Medicine in 1966, and did his internship and residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. He leaves behind his wife, Bonnie, six children and five grandchildren.