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He was a fixture and a friend at arts center

Everyone at the arts center knew security chief Milt Cunningham, and most called him friend.

Published February 13, 2004

RIVERSIDE HEIGHTS - Milt Cunningham lived a full life before he came to Tampa 17 years ago. He married twice, had a son and two stepchildren and owned several small businesses.

But people who knew him say he never really found himself until he moved here at age 57 and started working at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"I don't know exactly why he applied for a job there," said his niece, Karen Gay, of Tampa. "But he went there and got hired, and it was the best day of his life."

Mr. Cunningham died from complications of cancer Feb. 4, 2004, at age 74.

He worked as a security guard at the center for about five years, then was promoted to chief of security about 10 years ago. He held that position until about a year ago, when illness forced him to leave.

Mr. Cunningham was often the first person you'd meet if you came to the center's offices or backstage areas.

"The thing about Milt was that he kind of set the tone for the artists who came in here," said Judy Lisi, the center's president. "He represented the performing arts center for all the artists, all the techies, all the kids from the youth orchestras and a lot of other people."

Mr. Cunningham was born in Abbeville, Ala., and except for his time in college at Auburn University and the Army, he lived there well into adulthood. He and his first wife, Marie, had a son, Tracy, who still lives in Abbeville.

After they divorced, Mr. Cunningham moved to Spartanburg, S.C., where he met his second wife, Martha, and owned a series of small businesses.

"We really didn't get close to him until he came down here," Mrs. Gay said. "He had been very independent, and he loved being his own boss."

Mr. Cunningham came to Tampa after his second marriage broke up. He landed a steady job at the center, where he found a home and new family.

"He just found his niche," his niece said. "He settled in and finally came into his own. He loved that all the celebrities who came to the center knew him and remembered his name."

He was a favorite among his colleagues at the center. Julie Britton, the vice president of development, shared his passion for football, and their conversations became weekend traditions.

"First, we'd have our pre-football conversation on Fridays," she said. "He would tell me who he thought was going to win because he loved to bet on football. Then on Mondays, we'd talk about the games from over the weekend. I hated it when he'd take Mondays off because then I'd have to wait until Tuesday."

Besides football and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Mr. Cunningham was especially devoted to his terrier, Pepper. When his sister, Fran Magers of South Tampa, died a couple of years ago, he and Pepper moved into a condominium along the Hillsborough River.

Friends from the performing arts center often visited him there to help take care of him after he developed cancer a year ago.

Mr. Cunningham is survived by his son, Tracy, two stepchildren and two former wives.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:51:07]

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