For nearly four decades, he fought for needy people in the community, bringing food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless and affordable rent to struggling families.
After 37 years working for Community Action Inc. in Haverhill, including the past 24 years as its leader, John Cuneo has bid the agency farewell.
Cuneo, who retired from the job on Nov. 13, began his career at Community Action in 1983, first hired as the director of community organizing. Later that year, he was also named the agency’s first deputy executive director.
In 1996, Cuneo was named executive director of the agency, its top person, following the death of Gerald Goldman, who served as executive director from 1983 to 1995. The executive director’s title was later changed to president/CEO, the position Cuneo held until his retirement.
Cuneo said he most enjoyed working with many diverse people in the community to address serious, local issues that included: helping establish Emmaus as the city's first homeless shelter; helping start Community Action's drop-in center for homeless people; organizing TIGHT, a tenants group that fought condo conversions and steep rental increases in the 1990s; moving the Head Start program into the city's old Fox School; purchasing the Assembly of God Church in Newburyport to create Head Start classrooms for seacoast area preschoolers; organizing surplus food distributions; starting the area’s first substance abuse prevention program; collaborating with many people to help improve Haverhill's Mount Washington neighborhood; helping found the MakeIT Haverhill organization; and starting the Goldman Scholarship program.
"It is so exciting working with many different people from very different backgrounds for the betterment of the communities CAI serves," said Cuneo, adding he enjoyed working on the many fundraisers Community Action held, including golfing events, fashion shows and comedy nights.
Cuneo’s best-known fundraiser was the annual Duck Race Regatta he organized with the Rotary Club in Haverhill. He led the duck race for seven years, raising more than $250,000 for local nonprofits.
Under Cuneo’s leadership, Community Action grew to become a $15 million nonprofit corporation. The agency offers a variety of programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start, Family Day Care, Heating Assistance, WIC, Community Services, Education and Training, First Time Homebuyer classes, the Mount Washington Alliance, and the Family and Community Connection.
"I am most proud of bringing neighborhoods and communities together to tackle the tough problems facing our low-income residents," Cuneo said. "This is what the Community Action mission is all about."
Long time Community Action Board of Directors Chairperson Lucinda Nolet said Cuneo has been a force for people in Greater Haverhill and surrounding communities who need support. He constantly sought out new ways to resolve issues of poverty, she said.
"I, along with the board of directors, will miss John’s leadership and his vast knowledge of the many systems that are CAI," she said.
Cuneo said he started thinking about retirement when his brother died two years ago. He said his immediate plan after retirement is to do something simple and relaxing — sit on a window seat with his 18-year-old cat and enjoy the sunshine. Cuneo said he and his wife, Mary Jane, plan to stay in Haverhill.
Cuneo said he loves to kayak and is hoping to be able to volunteer at the new downtown kayaking facility.
He said he and his wife also plan to travel.
"I have a son in Colorado and one in Cleveland that we want to visit, and other family members we would like to see," he said.
"Though Mary Jane plans to work for two more years, soon we will have the time to do it," he said of their plans to travel.