Rappahannock News

Sally Cunningham was larger than life


Sally Cunningham passed away on March 20, 2022, of lung cancer. She was born Feb. 9, 1950. Sally was bird-like in stature, but her presence was grand. She leaned her tiny shoulders into everything she did, from rescuing dogs and cats, riding and caring for horses, and expounding on the latest scienti c literature about species conservati­on, to fashioning whimsical oral centerpiec­es. Sally was a master of transforma­tion — as the head of the Smithsonia­n Conservati­on Biology Institute once wrote to her, “give me a half-dozen Sallys and I’ll change the world.”

For years, Sally worked with horses and riders in many discipline­s — point-to-point racing, fox hunting, dressage, show jumping, trail riding and more. She was a horsewoman of great skill and bravery who enjoyed tending to the details of horse care as much as she enjoyed the sport’s grander exploits.

Sally became chair of the Rappahanno­ck Animal Welfare League (RAWL) in 1999, upgrading the shelter’s operations and spearheadi­ng fundraisin­g e orts that ranged from elegant dinners to “Dog Days” where dogs and owners competed in musical hay bales, obstacle courses, and other tests of skill and dog patience. Sally’s commitment to RAWL included the sta , whose hard work in caring for 20-40 dogs every day she genuinely appreciate­d.

Sally was an enthusiast­ic volunteer for Virginia Working Landscapes from its inception in 2009, where she helped pioneer the plant surveys. On many a sweltering summer day Sally could be seen emerging from someone’s bramble patch, only to head home to take care of her own menagerie or to move rocks in the magical landscape she carved out of a hillside next to her frog pond on North Poes Road in Rappahanno­ck County.

Sally was a force of nature as a tour guide at SCBI. She regaled heads of state, senators, mayors, and prospectiv­e donors with her narratives about the animals and the people who worked with them. She made it her business to know everything going on at SCBI, reading the Institute’s research papers, attending training and workshops, and learning everything she could from the sta about the endangered population­s they managed on and o the 3200-acre property. Sally recruited and nurtured other SCBI volunteers and helped to create and run a successful summer ecology camp with the Shenandoah Children’s Museum, which operated successful­ly at SCBI for several years.

The community also enjoyed Sally’s ower arrangemen­ts at many a gathering — most notably the legendary Summer Safari, which for years supported the work of the Piedmont Environmen­tal Council, Shenandoah National Park Trust, and SCBI. Sally brought her artistry and dramatic air, honed as a profession­al set designer at the Arena Stage Theater, to bear on the 50 + delicate bouquets she designed and donated each year.

Sally greeted friends and neighbors as if they were the most important person in the world. Throughout her illness, it was easy to believe that her big heart and “can do” spirit would prevail against all odds. She leaves behind a legacy of love for this corner of the world and a hole in the hearts of its inhabitant­s. A celebratio­n of Sally’s life is being planned for Sunday, April 24, from 2-4 p.m. at Frog Pond.


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