The Citizen Tribune lost one of its original employees and the Lakeway Area lost a great friend Saturday.

Don Cunningham, longtime circulation director for the Citizen Tribune, died Saturday following a lengthy illness.

He was 78.

Cunningham joined the Tribune at its founding in 1966 as a district manager and worked with the paper until his retirement in 2003.

“Don, served our community in many ways. He began in our circulation department when the paper was founded and then after many years of working with Milford Clifton as city circulation manager became Circulation Director for the Tribune and all of Lakeway papers,” Tribune founder and Lakeway Publishers President R. Jack Fishman said. “His knowledge and dedication for increasing circulation and providing home delivery to thousands of subscribers provided Lakeway readers with information on our schools, government, civic affairs and national events for nearly 40 years.

“A strong supporter of local government, he also served as a member of the Hamblen County Commission,” Fishman added.

Former County Commission Chairman Stancil Ford said he thought Cunningham served the county well in his single term.

“He was a fine member of the County Commission,” Ford said. “He always took the best interest of the taxpayer to heart.”

“I’ve seen us come from hard copies to computers,” Cunningham said at the paper’s 50th anniversary. “Every little thing changed, the way the paper was produced and everything else along with it. It was a great thing to see.

“The paper was everything,” he said. “It was the mouthpiece for the town. The newspaper, even 25 years ago, was advertising and editorial content and news about society. It was everything, and everyone wanted to see their names and pictures in the paper. Everyone wanted to read it.”

Cunningham’s work with the Tribune was not simply recognized locally. In 1998, the Southern Circulation Managers Association awarded Cunningham with the Clarence W. Bevinger Award, given in honor of Cunningham’s service, dedication, leadership and commitment to the industry.

That commitment came from the heart, said Bobbie Ball, who worked with Cunningham for 32 years.

“I worked with Don, it seems like all my life … he was the best boss ever,” she said. “The most caring, considerate person you’ll ever find. Very caring for people’s feelings, wonderful. He’s like my daddy, he’s been like a daddy to me.

“To this day, we texted. He texted three to four times a day. Up until a month ago, he came by this office every Wednesday and sat in my office to talk. On my birthday, on Valentine’s Day he was always the first one to call.”

That connection was an extension of Cunningham’s professional policy. He saw his co-workers as an extension of his family.

“We had a great time,” he said. “It passed by rather quickly, and I was able to raise my family here — my family came through the newspaper business, my three boys and girl. I’m not sure the whole newspaper wasn’t a family affair.”

In remembering Cunningham, Fishman reflected on his devotion to family and community, especially youth sports.

“In addition to his professional life he was a family man, father to four fine children,” Fishman said. “A great advocate of our recreational program, he took the time and energy to coach many years of local Little League and Babe Ruth baseball.

Recognized for his efforts in support of this program he was selected for induction into the Morristown Citizen Tribune Recreation Hall of Fame in 1981.”

In addition to being a Hall of Famer himself, through his role at the Tribune, Cunningham was instrumental in making the annual celebration happen.

“He was always great to work with,” Morristown Parks and Recreation Director Craig Price said. He was always a lot of fun to be around, always very witty and did his job well, working with the Hall of Fame banquet. He was a great recreator and coach also … a lot of great things happened during his tenure as a coach.

“He loved golf, loved people and always had his friends around him. He was just one of those people when you were around him, it brought your spirits.”

Cunningham, who graduated from Morristown High School in 1960, was named to the Hurricane Hall of Fame in 2009.

Cunningham told the Tribune in 2016 that working for the paper and for Lakeway Publishers president R. Jack Fishman was one of the best times of his life.

“I had a good time. I had a great time,” he said. “The newspaper business was great, and I loved every second of it. I can’t say it enough; I had a great time, truly.”