A Coach’s Gift: $1-million estate donation to support Parkinson’s research

Nov 19, 2020
Emily Kulin

Robert "Bob" CunninghamThe late Bob Cunningham receiving the key to the Cambridge Memorial Hospital The late Robert (Bob) Cunningham of Cambridge, Ontario loved helping others succeed.

“Bob was a coach through and through,” says his godson, Stephen Reynolds. “He was a mentor to me, and to many others in business, sports and beyond.” 

While Cunningham passed away following a short illness in June 2020, his generous spirit will live on in perpetuity following his estate’s $1-million gift to the University of Toronto’s Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases. 

Unusual for most planned gifts, the decision to support the Tanz Centre wasn’t made by Cunningham himself. Instead, he left the choice of which organizations to support to his estate’s trustees.

“Bob had a lot of conversations with us before he passed, but didn’t give us much in terms of specific directions,” says Reynolds, who serves as a trustee alongside his father, William Reynolds, and Cunningham’s cousin, Douglas Bowman. “All he cared about was having an impact. Bob wanted us to make sure that whoever benefitted from the estate would earn it or use it to its maximum benefit. He was confident we would come to the right conclusion.”
After learning about the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Tanz Centre from an advisor, the trustees came to see its researchers’ work as aligning with Bob’s own optimistic approach to life and natural curiosity.

“Bob was very inquisitive and was always asking questions,” says Reynolds. “He was also extremely positive. A problem was never insurmountable — it just had to be taken on. He challenged pessimism. Important research doesn’t always get funded. Blue sky stuff needs to be sponsored too. He’d be happy with this prudent risk — it’s an investment in hope.”

Delivering hope is exactly what the new Robert L. Cunningham Parkinson’s Research Award seeks to do. Each year, the endowed fund will provide a scientist with a prestigious award in support of research into Parkinson’s Disease — a progressive nervous system disorder affecting nearly 1 out of every 500 Canadians for which there is currently no cure.

“This new award will help expand our understanding of Parkinson’s disease and support vital research that could lead to potential new treatments,” says Professor Graham Collingridge CBE, FRS, director of the Tanz Centre. “As an endowed award, its impact will be felt forever. My colleagues and I are very grateful.”  

Reynolds points out this gift is just the latest in a long line of Cunningham’s philanthropic contributions.

“He believed that in life you have to give back to your community,” says Reynolds. “Bob spent more than 30 years coaching minor league hockey and baseball in Cambridge. Several years ago, he established scholarships for local high school student-athletes. He also served on the board of both the Cambridge Memorial Hospital and its foundation. The Intensive Care Unit there is named in his honour.”

As someone who received decades of advice and mentorship from his beloved godfather, Reynolds believes the way Cunningham arranged his estate was meant to provide an important final lesson.

“I think Bob left this money as a challenge to see what we would do,” says Reynolds. “He wanted us to understand the value of what giving meant. He was hoping we would take on that mantle and carry his legacy forward, to make us better people. In all sincerity, the opportunity to give away his legacy has been a gift to us all. He was a very special man.”