The Sydney Morning Herald
March 25, 1999

Syd Cunningham, OAM

Aboriginal community stalwart
1926 - 1999
“The kids’ eyes shone like diamonds when they saw the helicopter,” said Syd
“Doc" Cunningham, describing how Aboriginal children at Nanima reserve in the
NSW country town of Wellington reacted when he descended from the sky with toys
nine years ago.

As “Black Santa”, for more than 30 years, Cunningham persuaded Sydney citizens
to donate toys so that Aboriginal children in the State’s west might have a
gift-filled Christmas that their families otherwise might never have been able
to afford.

Sydney Arthur Cunningham began his annual bush odysseys in the early 1960s – he
teamed red overalls with a red pyjama top and a pair of gumboots – to hand out
“a few gifts” to children out west.

"I’d put on the Santa uniform, get all the kids and give them Christmas. The
crowds grew and grew,” he later recalled.

By last Christmas, he was providing toys to some 6,000 children in Wellington,
Dubbo, Peak Hill, Gilgandra and Bourke, although poor health made it impossible
for him to appear personally.

Peter Piggott, who flew the helicopter taking the toys out westin the late 1980s
and early 1990s with Cunningham, remembered how “humbling" it was to see the
children’s faces.

“He’s an amazing, indefatigable man. Totally honest. He didn’t want anything for
himself; he just loves kids," Pigott once said of him.

A fearless fund-raiser, Cunningham also helped pensioners with gifts of food,
clothing, party fare, fridges and TVs.

Descended through his mother from the Yuen people of the NSW South Coast,
Cunningham grew up in Redfern and La Perouse. His first job was selling
newspapers; he graduated to driving wool carts pulled by horses through Sydney.

However, his chord of kindness lured him into welfare work and he daily battled
to help his people during many years as co-ordinator with the Western Districts
Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in St Marys.

A registered charity, it gave food, advice, furniture and clothing to needy
Aborigines and helped pay for funerals.

He sent blankets to Nyngan Aborigines when their town was flooded. He and his
wife often had extra children living with them, who could stay as long as they
needed to get on their feet He also raised money for research into cancer in

Cunningham served in the Army and the RAAF and in Papua New Guinea during World
War II. After a 51-year battle, he finally proved that his poor health stemmed
from his war service and was awarded a disability pension.

After he retired, Cunningham took to sitting with a table, chair
and bucket on the pavement in King Street, Newtown, with a
sign which said, “Wellington Aboriginal Children, we need
your help for a bush Xmas.”

The RSL made him Anzac of the Year in 1982 and he was also  named Aboriginal of
the Year in 1987. In 1989 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal.

In 1992, retiring from the foundation after working there for more than 20
years, he registered the name “Black Santa” and, in spite of several strokes,
kept up his tireless collection of toys.

A long-time resident of Alexandria, he had a collection of
marionettes which he loved to make dance. His last years were
focused on his five grandchildren, aged four to 11 years.

Cunningham died in his sleep at Balmain Hospital after a long
illness. He is survived by his wife, Judith, daughters Dianne and
Leonie, and son, Kerry. He also had a long-lost daughter, Helen,
who he was never able to find.
                                       Debra Jopson

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