Close Up

Raring to Go

Dottie Cunningham ’64 leads her Learn to Skate class at Boss Arena.

Dottie Cunningham ’64 shines when she’s teaching—in the classroom or on the ice.

Dottie Cunningham ’64 can’t stand still. We eat breakfast at T’s Restaurant in Narragansett, R.I. I work at a slab of French toast; Dottie nibbles her spinach and eggs. But only 30 minutes prior, she was skating around in a fur coat and snow pants at URI’s Boss Arena. When I ask her if she’s the kind of person who needs to be active, a small smile appears on her face and her eyes twinkle. She nods.

Cunningham is busy, and always has been. She manages a summer vacation home in Jamestown with her sister (she tries to entice this reporter to bite for the upcoming season), teaches ice-skating to the over-50 crowd, is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at URI, gives presentations on the Iditarod (one of her many passions), and still tutors students, even though she’s long retired from her 29-plus year position teaching at Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, R.I. Just this past fall, she also twirled the baton with the Ramettes at Alumni & Family Weekend—and her daughter only recently saw the video.

“My kids have no idea what I’m doing, so when they see me, they’re like, ‘Mom!?’” she says, laughing.

But skating is where she really shines. Cunningham is a natural on the ice (she ran her own skating school in Franklin, Mass., for years), and each spring, she teaches an eight-week-long OLLI class for 50-and-older skaters, twice a week. “My motto in skating—well, in everything—I want my students to know more and to appreciate the efforts of others,” she says.

Beth Leconte, executive director of OLLI, says of Cunningham, “Her enthusiasm and style are contagious, and she encourages everyone to have fun and enjoy life—no matter what your age.”

A group of skaters piles onto the ice at Boss Arena just after 9 a.m., laughing, knees wobbling slightly, and Cunningham floats around—a tuft of her pink, cashmere sweater peeking out from her fur coat, framing her smile. She quips to her group, “You folks are about ready for a jump lesson,” to which she’s met with laughter broken up by shouts of, “No way!”

Today, instead of jumps (much to the relief of her class), Cunningham plans to lead them through a routine set to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” “That’s our tune,” she explains. And though it is actually raining outside this Thursday morning, it’s very hard to dampen Cunningham’s enthusiasm.

Two of Cunningham’s best friends from Park View Middle School in Cranston, R.I.—Janet Wilson and Marcia Gladue—stand near the penalty box, cracking jokes and watching, gleefully, as their longtime friend shines under the fluorescents. “We all turned 80 last year,” says Cunningham. “Eighty and raring to go!”

Neither Wilson nor Gladue were serious skaters before her class, as far as Cunningham remembers. But throughout her years teaching—whether her students were 7 or 70—she’s always believed that if you do the work (and have fun), you can achieve a great deal.

“You only get out of a thing what you put into it, and it doesn’t matter if you go to a big-name school or whatever … you can still make it no matter what, but it depends on you,” Cunningham says. “There is no ‘can’t,’ and I believe that because I’ve witnessed it so many times before.”

B.J. Thomas’ voice comes over the speaker, sprinkling proverbial raindrops, and the class gathers and glides up and down the rink, finishing with a little spin, arms—and smiles—wide.

“We just keep on truckin’,” says Cunningham, “because it’s fun.”

—Grace Kelly