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Jim and Carlene Cunningham

“There is honey in this land sweeter than any I know of . . .”
--Toni Morrison

From their home in eastern Merced County, the land flows out in all directions. To the west, fertile fields are stitched in a patchwork blanket of farms. Further eastward, the land rises up into rolling foothills, eventually forming the jagged peaks of the Sierras.
For several generations, the Cunningham family has made this area their home. For Jim and Carlene Cunningham, though they have traveled widely, it remains the best place on earth.
Today we honor Jim and Carlene with the 2016 President’s Medallion, a distinction given to those members of our community who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to improve the lives of all who call this area home. Though they have not sought public recognition for their philanthropy and volunteer efforts, we are grateful to them, and today we give them the praise that is their due.
The Cunningham’s relationship with Merced College goes back to the very founding of the community college district. Jim’s father Byron was one of the original members of the first governing Board of Trustees, a seat that Jim would later hold for many years. Jim and Carlene sent each of their three children to Merced College and they have all gone on to enjoy successful careers while raising Jim and Carlene’s seven grandchildren.

Married 53 years ago in the Planada Community Church, Jim and Carlene live on the 2,000-acre Cunningham Ranch where they still raise cattle and where James Cunningham, Jim’s great-grandfather, first settled in 1853. In fact, Jim’s father “was born in a little house down the road.”
At its height in 1883, the Cunningham Ranch encompassed about 16,000 acres with 1,200 head of cattle, 4,000 sheep, 200 hogs, and scores of chickens, ducks, and geese. Though smaller by comparison, the ranch today normally supports 300 cattle and several long barns full of chickens.
That long history of stewardship of the land and their own personal ethic of community involvement mark the Cunninghams as one of the area’s most respected families.
“We believe it’s important to give back to the community,” remarked Carlene. “We’re part of the community, and we want to help make this a better place for all.”
And they have.
The list of local organizations and activities they’ve supported over many years is extensive. The local 4-H and FFA chapters were well served by their volunteer leadership and their children, Mike, Kelly, and Jill, grew up in 4-H programs, an experience that Jim says taught them valuable life-long lessons and responsibilities that prepared them for the adult world.
Serving on the Merced County Board of Education (1969-75), the Planada Elementary School Board (1975-79), the Le Grand High School Board (1979-83), and the Merced College Board of Trustees (1985-1994), Jim has helped guide educational programs for many thousands of students. Carlene’s work to preserve local history found her serving on the Merced County Historical Society board for many years, including being elected president twice. She has also at various times been a Brownie, Girl Scout, and even a Cub Scout leader. Carlene, who worked for the US Postal Service for 31 years, the last 11 as the Postmaster for the community of Planada, was also a project leader of the Le Grand 4-H Club from 1978-82. With a bit of wry humor, Carlene says that she also “ran a taxi service, taking our kids to their different club and sporting events.”
Jim and Carlene are both proud to be early supporters of UC Merced, and Jim continues to serve on the Mercy Medical Center Foundation Board and the Merced Theatre Foundation Board. He was named by the Merced Chamber of Commerce as its “Citizen of the Year” in 1996.
The couple has made major gifts to Merced College, UC Merced, the Merced Theatre, the Mercy Medical Center, Friends of the Fair, and many other worthwhile organizations. In fact, the amphitheater area we are enjoying today would not have been possible without their financial support.
The list of Jim and Carlene’s volunteer activities and their philanthropic contributions are as numerous and as far ranging as the hundreds of cattle that roam the quiet foothills of eastern Merced County.

 

2014 President’s Medallion Award
Dr. Hanimireddy Lakireddy

Dr. Hanimireddy Lakireddy was born in the remote village of Velvadam in British India in 1942. He was 5 years old when India gained its independence.
By the time he began attending primary school, Velvadam was still without electricity or paved roads. Transportation was lacking and for most of the villagers, education was only a dream.
Dr. Lakireddy’s father believed he should become a farmer rather than going to school, and though he pleaded with his father to allow him to go to school, he actually missed two years of his education while working on a farm. Although he lost his mother when he was in 8th grade, he was able to complete high school at a recently established local school which was two miles away. Dr. Lakireddy walked to school without shoes and his only clothing were two 2 pairs of shorts and two shirts.
Despite intense competition and with little guidance from his elders, he gained admission to medical school on the merit of his standardized exam scores. After successfully completing his medical education, and after getting married, Dr. Lakireddy returned to his village to practice medicine.
During this time, his oldest brother had come to the United States to study chemistry at UC Berkeley. He eventually settled here and encouraged his family to migrate after seeing the many opportunities this country could afford.
Dr.Lakireddy eventually followed his family and arrived in America in 1978 with his wife Vijaya and their two young children. He completed his training in Internal Medicine and Cardiology and began his successful practice as a cardiologist in Merced in 1984. He has been serving our local community for the past 30 years, serving his patients with compassion, and earning great respect from his peers in the medical community.
In addition to his invaluable service to his patients as a cardiologist, Dr. Lakireddy has helped many people informally as a mentor and advisor. It is his role as a philanthropist that we are recognizing and celebrating today.

As most of us know, his largesse has been focused on educational causes because he fundamentally believes that knowledge is the most effective vehicle to change the trajectory of one’s life. He feels strongly enough about this that his generosity is felt and acknowledged not just here in Merced, but also in his native country where he and Vijaya have donated generously to advance educational causes. He has been instrumental in building several schools and most recently, a college near the village where he grew up.
Here at home, along Vijaya, he has given generously to various causes including Merced College, UC Merced, and Merced High School.
Although they have been recognized recently for their large contributions to Merced College and UC Merced, it has been largely unnoticed that they have provided scholarships in the name of Dr. Lakireddy’s parents to Merced High School graduates based on merit and need for the last 29 years. They have done this without any fanfare or ceremony.
Philanthropy has been his way of thanking the local community for all that it has done for him and his family. Dr. Lakireddy sincerely appreciates the United States for providing him with the opportunity to succeed.

 

Hundal Farms Trust Scholarship

Thanks to a long-time Merced College professor and her husband, students wishing to pursue teaching careers will have extra help in the form of scholarships.
History professor Amerjit Johl-Hundal and Par Singh Hundal, joint owners and trustees of Hundal Farms Inc., have established a $10,000 scholarship endowment through the Merced College Foundation.
“We are very grateful for this generous gift, which Par and Amerjit have provided,” said Foundation Executive Director Robin Shepard. “The Hundal Farms Scholarship Endowment will provide scholarships for students wishing to pursue careers in teaching. This is wonderful investment in our students, one that will produce lasting benefits for our society.”
Based in the Central Valley and Monterey County (Pebble Beach), Hundal Farms Inc. has been involved in the agricultural business for that past 25 years, mainly in the almond and pistachio production industry. The business presently encompasses several thousand acres and employs 30 full-time and 15 seasonal workers.
Hundal Farms Trust has been involved in philanthropic endeavors for the past 10 years, including endowments established with UCLA. Professor Johl has been teaching at Merced College since 1992. While she has educated local students, Hundal Farms Trust has made been a major contributor to our local economy. Together, the couple has made the local community a better place in which to live.
“This is our way of giving back to the Merced community. With this gift, we hope to encourage and motivate our students and benefit the people who live here.”
With a heart to change lives, Parvinder S. Hundal and Amerjit Johl will be pleased to know that their philanthropy will do just that.

 

2013 President’s Medallion Award
Don and Betty Stewart

Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote, “To give without any reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own.”
That special quality is evident in the lives of longtime Merced residents Don and Betty Stewart.
The Stewarts have given back to their community over many years with little fanfare. Expecting no reward, no honor or recognition, but humbling themselves in service of others, Don and Betty Stewart exemplify the spirit and essence of philanthropy.
They are, however, deserving of recognition today, and we are honored to award the 2013 President’s Medallion Award to Don and Betty Stewart.
Having built a very successful regional business, raising five children, and becoming fully engaged in the life of their local community, the Stewarts have made major contributions to Merced College, UC Merced, Mercy Hospital, the Merced Theatre Foundation, and many other local charitable organizations. For many years, they have provided generous scholarships to Merced College nursing students, as well as having made major contributions to other campus projects.
Don and Betty were married in the chapel of Stanford University in 1948.

The former Betty Santi then convinced the tall, handsome WWII veteran that “Merced was the perfect place to raise a family.” They did just that with daughters Melinda, Jana, Andrea, and sons Don Jr. and Robert who have provided the Stewarts with 13 adoring grandchildren.
As owners of Delta-Sierra Beverage Company, the Stewart’s ties to Merced go back to the early 1900s when Betty’s family owned and operated the largest milk processing plant in Merced. Merced Dairy eventually became the Merced Dairy and Ice Company, then Sunshine Farms, which stayed in the family until being sold in 1976. Betty’s father, Ben Santi, had also established a beverage distribution business in 1933 and after a series of expansions it became the Delta-Sierra Beverage Company of today.
The Stewarts are strong advocates for Merced College and its presence in the local community. Betty remarks “How fortunate we are to have these many acres of property so perfectly suited to our students and faculty.” They have both enjoyed “roaming the campus” over the years, admiring the landscape and facilities. The couple appreciates Merced College for providing local residents with many educational, recreational, and cultural opportunities. As Betty says, “It’s too good to be true!”
Today, we show our appreciation to Don and Betty Stewart by naming them the 2013 President’s Medallion recipients, and it is fitting that they become the first of Merced College’s friends and supporters to receive this honorary award.
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