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Lillian Cunningham with Tufts President Jean Mayer
Photo: Courtesy of Colleen Cunningham


Lil at the Till


In 1988, fourteen years into Lillian Cunningham’s reign as perhaps the most popular cashier in the history of Carmichael Dining Center, Mike Epstein, A88, devoted one of his columns in the Tufts Daily to her. “To any ordinary person, running countless ID cards through a little meal-card machine might be perceived as, well, monotonous,” he noted. “But when Lil zips those suckers through, the task seems like a ball. Lil is not working at a job; she’s spending time with people she likes.”

Her fifties-style red lipstick outlining a cupid’s-bow mouth, Lil would always welcome students with a heartfelt Happy Breakfast! or Happy Lunch! or Happy Dinner! She’d share pictures of her cat, or refuse to let people through the line unless they could name the capital of South Dakota, or ask why the chicken crossed Harvard Square (to get to the Coop). One student was inspired to compose a limerick about her. It ended, “As a meeter and greeter / No one could beat her / So great is our Lil at the till.”

Yet Lil, who died in 2001, was treasured for more than just friendly banter, says her daughter, Colleen Cunningham, J83, G88. “So many students turned to her as a confidante, a shoulder to cry on in times of upheaval, and someone to cheer them on,” Colleen recalls. “Parents, too, often wrote thanking her for being a great listener for their children away from home.”

Maryanne Wolf, director of Tufts’ Center for Reading and Language Research, flatly asserts that “no one could beat Lil Cunningham when it came to love,” and will never forget how as a young child, her son David Noam blossomed under her care. When Lil took on the job of babysitting him, the two became inseparable. “Lil and David were Boston’s version of Harold and Maude,” Wolf recounts. “Over the years they would walk hand in hand through the neighborhood. Waitresses beamed, storekeepers grinned.”

And the effects reached deep into David’s future. “Lil loved Colleen, she loved David, she loved Tufts, and she wanted David to be sure to go to Tufts, just as Colleen had,” says Wolf. “Last year when I saw him walk across the stage at graduation, an image of her flashed across my mind. She would be so proud to know he followed her advice.”

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