A host of youth programs and community groups in Lodi, Calif., benefit from Big O franchisee Dennis Cunnington's involvement. Tire Business photo by Dave Zielasko
LODI, Calif.-Every town has them: people who make a habit of giving to their community.
You know who they are. They're the ones who coach Little League sports teams, cook pancakes for school fund raisers and serve on city commissions and park boards.
They're the people who volunteer to make their community a better place and ask nothing in return.
In Lodi, a city of 56,000 located near the delta waterways of central California, one of those givers is Dennis Cunnington, co-owner of a Big O Tires Inc. franchise.
``He's a volunteer's volunteer,'' said Layne Van Noy, recreation supervisor for the Lodi Parks & Recreation Department, a city organization that has benefited from Mr. Cunnington's volunteer efforts.
``He's the epitome of volunteerism. He's a person that supports the community, who looks out for the best interests of the community.''
It is his unselfish efforts on behalf of Lodi that have led to Mr. Cunnington's selection as the winner of the 1996 Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award, an honor presented annually by Tire Business to an independent tire dealer or retreader who is making a difference in his or her community.
Mr. Cunnington was chosen for the award by three judges outside the tire industry-civic leaders in their own right-who cited his commitment and dedication to a wide range of activities and causes over the past 16 years. ``His charitable service reaches large groups of people and includes spending time one-on-one with individuals,'' the judges wrote.
A big, burly man with a beard and mustache, Mr. Cunnington's love for his fellow man is evident the minute you walk into his tire store. He often greets customers with a hug. It's an obvious sign of affection for his patrons, most of whom he knows by name, but it's a gesture he learned while working with the Special Olympics as an events coordinator, one of his many volunteer activities.
``It comes with the territory when you're involved in Special Olympics,'' he said. ``Everything is a hug.''
Being around the Special Olympics and ``special ed'*'' people makes a difference, Mr. Cunnington said.
``You see a kid with Down Syndrome with a big smile on his face giving you a hug because he's excited he can throw a shot put 10 feet, and then you go back to your retail (store) and you've got some guy that's unloading on you because he got 40,000 miles on his 50,000-mile tire,'' he said. ``And you're thinking, `Geez, you've got no problem compared to what these other guys have.'''
It's this perspective about what's really important in life that has led Mr. Cunnington into a slew of volunteer activities.
A football fanatic who played high school football in Lodi, Mr. Cunnington has coached seventh and eighth graders in Pop Warner football for the past nine years. ``He's been the mainstay, a source of stability for the entire program,'' Mr. Van Noy said. This year, Mr. Cunnington is coaching sophomore football at the high school.
But he's more than a coach. A better term might be ``father figure.''
``He's concerned about individuals,'' Mr. Van Noy said. ``Kids on the outskirts, kids who've experimented with drugs or who have family problems, he reaches out to them, takes them into his home, kicks them in the butt. He meets their needs, whatever those needs are at that point in life, and helps straighten them out. There's probably a number of kids on life's track because of his efforts.''
Mr. Cunnington also can be a bulldog in pushing through projects others believe can't be done. The building of a 6,000-sq.-ft. indoor skate park for the youth of Lodi illustrates his determination.
As adviser to the Youth Commission, Mr. Cunnington oversaw the development and building of the skate park, a project city officials said was too expensive and too time-consuming, and probably wouldn't happen.
Mr. Cunnington viewed this negativism as a challenge and strove to make the park a reality.
He headed a group of youth and adult volunteers who raised money for the project, got lumber companies to donate wood and local workers to build ramps and jumps. In less than a year, the volunteers had constructed a $35,000 indoor skate park in a former warehouse. Youngsters pay $3 for a full day of use with their skateboards and in-line skates.
``Without his support and drive, it might not have come to pass,'' Mr. Van Noy said.
Once the park was up and running, it was turned over to the city, where it's now run by the parks and recreation department, Mr. Cunnington said proudly.
Helping better his community is a way of life for the 42-year-old tire dealer. Beyond Special Olympics, serving on the Youth Commission and building the skate park, Mr. Cunnington is involved with the city school district's work programs that help train mentally and physically handicapped children and has been business manager for the Babe Ruth all-star team.
He is an appointed member of the City of Lodi Revitalization Committee that is helping revitalize and improve the downtown area, helps cook for local fund raisers and times swim meets.
For his work in helping make the city of Lodi a better place to live, he was honored with the Mayor's Community Service Award in 1995.
``That's probably one of the greatest awards I've ever received, next to my two children,'' Mr. Cunnington said.
With the 60-hour-a-week demands of running his dealership, how does he find time to help out in the community and still stay in touch with his wife and children?
``When you're involved as a family, it's easy,'' Mr. Cunnington said. His wife Janet, daughter Hope-who works in the dealership while going to college-and 15-year-old son Luke go with him to the sporting events and other volunteer activities.
Then there's his Big O partner, Kim Hoellwarth, who runs the automotive service side of the dealership. ``Actually, this should be a co-award with my partner and me,'' Mr. Cunnington said. They've been inseparable since the sixth grade, when they started putting together barbecue grills and bicycles for J.C. Penny's summer sidewalk sales.
Today, they run a Big O franchise that has posted more than $1 million in revenues for each of the past eight years, despite local unemployment that stood at 16 percent in 1995.
As part of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award, TIRE BUSINESS will donate $1,000 in Mr. Cunnington's name to the charity of his choice. He has asked that the money go to the Lodi Parks & Recreation Department Youth Sports Program, which provides support for needy youngsters who can't afford to participate in sports activities.
``I'm a firm believer if you expect anything out of the community, you've got to give back to the community,'' Mr. Cunnington said of his volunteer activities.
He certainly is doing his part.