From the time Tyler Cunningham was 8 or 9, he was more interested in farming than the cowboy stuff that a lot of country kids tend to like.
“He’s the reason I like farming today,” said Keaton Gilmer, a lifelong friend. “Him and his John Deere tractors.”
Cunningham, 19, died on May 28, about a week following a traffic accident, and just a few days before graduation at Silver Bluff High School.
Throughout his life, the young man found joy with mechanical things – machines, like those old tractors, and anything he could make.
He had been scheduled to receive a machine tools certificate at the Aiken County Career and Technology Center’s “completers” ceremony. Two days later he was going to graduate at Silver Bluff’s commencement.
His parents, Meg and Bave Cunningham, soon learned that their son impacted more lives that they could have imagined.
As many as 500 people attended the visitation, and Jackson Baptist Church was packed for the service.
“The outpouring was incredible,” Meg said. “So many people loved our son and us.”
The schools’ response meant so much to the Cunninghams, as well.
The Career Center students left a wreath on the seat Cunningham would have used and recognized his loss.
The Silver Bluff seniors did so, too; and when the Cunninghams received their son’s diploma, they stood as one.
“We didn’t think the administration and the teachers would allow us that time,” Meg said. “We wanted to make sure about the other children, that they wouldn’t be overshadowed. But they wanted to honor Tyler.”
Bave grew up in New Ellenton, Meg in Beech Island. Both graduated from Silver Bluff and, after their marriage, they settled down in Beech Island.
They were comfortable there and found it a great place to raise Tyler and his younger sister, Ellen.
“Tyler always had a passion for everything mechanical,” Bave said. “He could sit down with the parts and the manuals and memorize it.”
He took stuff apart all the time and thoroughly relished the chance to work on those tractors, actually antiques, Meg said.
When he arrived at the Career Center his junior year, machine tools instructor Quinten Cooks was surprised that Tyler only wanted the oldest tools in the room.
The teenager would say, if he learned how to run the old equipment, he would know the new stuff.
“From day one, he knew exactly what he wanted,” Cooks said. “His dream was become a machinist.”
Their son’s determination to prepare for the future surprised his parents.
They seldom had to help him with expenses. He mowed grass for people – anything that would pay for nearly all the gas for the 1995 Ford truck that meant so much to him.
Tyler saved his money and put it in his checking account.
He realized one time that he needed a cellphone, so he worked even harder to pay for it. Yet whenever his checking account got a little higher than he needed, he inevitably would transfer funds to savings.
“He was very tight with a dollar,” Bave said with pride. “Tyler was remarkably mature for his age. I told him, ‘I’ll probably be working for you,’ and he told me, ‘We’ll have to talk that over.”
Bave and his wife spent nine days in the hospital with Tyler, and again, they are so grateful for the support.
Their friends and the entire church congregation provided them with meals and anything else they needed.
The church has been so important to the family.
For years, Bave and Meg would stop by Tyler’s bedroom, and he would be sitting there, reading the Bible.
“Without our faith, we couldn’t have made it,” Bave said. “We know that our son is with the lord. That’s the only peace we have now.”
Gilmer still has trouble believing his buddy is gone, but he, too, has found the same way to cope.
“This has been really emotional for us,” said Gilmer. “But he is here with us in our hearts and looking down on us.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Following the death of their son Tyler on May 28, Bave and Meg Cunningham accept his diploma from Silver Bluff High School last week from Dr. Tim Yarborough, the School District academic officer for high schools.×
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Silver Bluff High School seniors honor their late classmate, Tyler Cunningham, with a wreath during the graduation ceremony last week. He died on May 28 following a traffic accident.×