Everybody that worked with or collaborated with Fred Cuny experienced some unforgettable moments. Here are some of his colleagues’ recollections of their favorite or most memorable examples.
The first is written by his father, Gene Cuny.
“THE LONE RANGER OF RELIEF AID”
“The London Times called him ”Mr. Disaster”, the Life Magazine called him “The Red Adair of Relief”, The Carnegie Foundation for Peace called him “An International Treasure” and the Los Angeles Times called him “The Lone Ranger of Relief Aid”; but to his family and friends Frederick C. Cuny is just plain old Fred or Freddy.
Fred liked to think of himself as a native Texan but, to tell the truth, he was born in the Yale University Hospital in New Raven, Connecticut when his father Gene Cuny was in graduate school at Yale.
Fred did grow up as a middle-class teenager in Dallas during the early stages of the Vietnam War where he dreamed of becoming a Marine aviator. Armed with a pilot license, which he obtained when he was still in high school, he enrolled in the military cadet program at Texas A&M University. But after failing Spanish in his Junior year, he transferred to Texas A&I in Kingsville.
It was at A&I that a professor interested him in humanitarian work by taking him to Mexico and showing the plight of some of the people living in the barrios and then to see the immigrant farm workers living in South Texas. He was so touched that he helped the workers organize. A later injury kept him out of military service and destroyed his dreams of becoming a Marine pilot.
After graduating from college Fred secured a job with Carter and Burgess Engineering firm who were demolighting a housing project in New Orleans and needed Fred to relocate the people in the project. It was this association with professional engineers that gave him the knowledge to help people in the third world build houses to withstand hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Fred finally found his calling during a 1969 visit to Biafra, where he was as shocked by the mismanagement of disaster aid as by the starving refugees. Later on a visit to Bangladesh, after a typhoon, he saw people living in large quonset huts with dead relatives because they feared that reporting the death would cause the loss of a daily ration.
“One would have to say that he saved the lives of many, many thousands of people in many places,” says Aryeh Neir, president of the New York based Soros Foundation, which hired Fred to help develop several relief projects in Chechnya. ”There’s other quite wonderful people out there who do superb work but I can’t imagine anyone who can fill Fred’s shoes.”
On the surface, he could be a swashbuckling self-promoter and fanciful raconteur. There was the time in India when he butted heads with Mother Teresa, telling the Nobel Prize laureate that her plan to build concrete housing was wrong for Calcutta’s muddy soil. Or the time in Zagreb when he tried to disarm Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Miadic by poking fun at the accused war criminal’s showy perpendicular cap.
With an imposing 6-foot-3, 250 pound frame, Fred would often play the role of the “stride-in, take-charge, fearless Texan, sort of a ‘Fred Cuny’s in town’ kind of thing” claims Rick Hill, Director of Intertect, Fred’s Dallas based relief company. “It’s no place for virgins”, Fred said of his work in a 1985 “Texas Monthly” profile. A gag business card, still pinned above his desk, trumpets his versatility: ‘FATE TEMPTED, BARS EMPTIED, TIGERS TAMED”.
But behind the bravado, Fred possessed the kind of unglamorous, brass-tacks engineering skill that translates good intentions into real, lifesaving aid.
During the Persian Gulf War, he took on extraordinary responsibilities as a U.S. military adviser, ultimately overseeing the successful return of 500,000 Kurdish refugees to northern Iraq. In Sarajevo where he stealthily restored an underground water system after it had been cut by Serbian bombardments, he chastised the United Nations for its halfhearted presence. After his first visit to Chechnya earlier this year, he assailed Russian atrocities, revealing an insider’s understanding of the armed struggle in a detailed New York Review of books essay which may have led to his death.
According to family members who have been searching for Fred for 4 months, masked men entered their quarters at gunpoint, forced them to lie on the floor with machine guns pointed at their heads, and then stole their satellite telephone, computers and fax machine in an attempt to tell them that they were getting too close to finding out the truth.
Fred Cuny will be remembered by many people for his work in MEXICO, in PERU & GUATEMALA, in SUDAN, in ARMENIA, in SOMALIA, in IRAQ, in SRY LANKA, in the CARIBBEAN, and in THE FAR EAST REFUGEE CAMPS. These are a few of the many places Fred has helped. Now the International Treasure has been lost.”
Fred Cuny’s Father, Gene Cuny