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Badge of the third SC trooper to die in the line of duty will be included in SCDPS time capsule

Sat, 06/01/2024

JD Cunningham

The old brass and copper-plated patrolman’s badge had been in Frances Gipson’s possession since her mother died in 1993. Gipson knew that someday, she too would be gone, but she wanted the badge — and the service of the man who died wearing it — to be preserved.

“I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just held on to it,” Gipson said of the campaign hat badge belonging to fallen Patrolman John Davenport Cunningham, who was her father’s brother and one of the first South Carolina troopers killed in the line of duty.

Gipson’s mother, Alice Tucker, was married to Cunningham from 1926 until his death in 1933.  They had a son, John D. Cunningham, who was 9 months old when he died in an accident while on patrol.   

Born and raised in Laurens County and known by many as “J.D.,” Cunningham worked on his family’s farm and then as an insurance salesman before joining the South Carolina Highway Patrol’s first training class, which graduated in May 1931. Throughout his short career, Cunningham was assigned to Cherokee and Spartanburg counties.

On one occasion, he pulled over then-Governor James F. Byrnes for speeding, writing the governor a ticket and taking him before a magistrate. When asked by the magistrate if he was aware of who he had pulled over, Cunningham responded, “It doesn’t matter. He broke the law.” The governor then praised Cunningham for his impartiality and paid the fine.

The young patrolman’s life was cut tragically short on June 1, 1933. While Cunningham was on patrol, a vehicle turned into the path of his motorcycle. His motorcycle hit the car head-on, throwing Cunningham across the hood, causing him to hit the windshield and land about 15 feet on the other side of the car.

At the time, patrolmen were not required to wear protective gear like helmets while patrolling on motorcycles, according to Jim McClary, administrator of the SC Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame. “Nobody thought anything about it back then,” he said, adding that helmets were not mandatory for law enforcement on motorcycles until the 1960s.

Two passing motorists took Cunningham to a nearby hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery for a fractured skull, and multiple fractures in both arms and both legs.

“He lived long enough for my mother to get there, thankfully, and then he passed away,” Gipson said.

After Cunningham’s death, his wife — who at the time had a 9-month-old baby — moved in with his parents. On January 29, 1934, she married her late husband’s younger brother, Charles Reese Cunningham.

“It was a terrible time for women back then,” Gipson said. “My mother couldn’t work. She tried to work, but no one could keep the baby.”

Gipson never met J.D. but has heard fond stories about him from her parents.

“I think my dad admired him a great deal,” she said. “Dad told me once that he was the only one J.D. trusted to drive his car. Being the oldest, J.D. provided for his family and his parents. Back then, it wasn't easy to make a living.”   

Gipson’s father held on to Cunningham’s uniform, including the badge from his shirt, his boots, and his campaign hat. However, the items were stored in an outbuilding, where the elements took their toll over the years. Eventually, all the items except the hat badge were thrown out. Gipson’s mother kept that with her in the house.

Over the years, Gipson received correspondence from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, inviting her to events and ceremonies honoring the fallen SCHP troopers. But it was after seeing an article in 2023 about a time capsule being assembled in honor of the SCDPS 30th anniversary that she realized what to do with Cunningham’s badge.

“It just came to me one day,” she said. “Why not donate the badge to the Highway Patrol, where it will be safe?”

Gipson read about the time capsule in some correspondence sent to her by Lois Rao, the mother of fallen SCHP trooper Mike Rao.

“When I located the badge in my jewelry box where I had placed it years ago for safekeeping, I knew where it should be donated and that my mother would agree,” she said.

The agency’s time capsule will be assembled in 2024 as part of the 30th anniversary of DPS, which was established in 1993. It was decided that the capsule would not be opened for 20 years.

“By that time, I probably won’t be here to witness that,” she said. “When I’m in heaven, I’m going to be very proud with my mother and her son by my side. It means a lot right now to know that J.D. gave his life for his job. I know if she were here, she would be very pleased about what you all are doing.” 

Additional biographical information was provided by Jim McClary, SC Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame.

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