Describing the life of Joan Cunnane is like detailing a sunset off the Santa Monica pier. There’s a lot to take in.

Political activist and granddaughter of a suffragist. Loving wife and mother to, by their own admission, a “boisterous” brood of five kids. Chain smoker. Solitaire player. MSNBC watcher. Sit-in protester. Jokester.

“She lived life completely and without apology,” son PJ wrote in a tribute.

Mrs. Cunnane, 88, died on Sunday, May 3, of the coronavirus at Edgehill Nursing Home in Glenside.

Born in Scranton in 1932, Mrs. Cunnane became a model after high school and moved to Philadelphia. She met her future husband, Bill, in 1956 in an Irish bar in Jenkintown, and they went on to have a daughter and four sons. After raising her children, Mrs. Cunnane went to work as a nurse.

Mrs. Cunnane doing her favorite things: smoking, cooking, laughing, watching MSNBC and losing at solitaire. Her family called this her "happy place."
Courtesy of the Cunnane family
Mrs. Cunnane doing her favorite things: smoking, cooking, laughing, watching MSNBC and losing at solitaire. Her family called this her "happy place."

A lifelong Democrat, she worked for every party presidential candidate from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Her son wrote that she joked that “she baptized me and my sister and brothers Democrats before baptizing us Catholic.”

She was especially impressed with Obama. “I think she loved him as much as any of her four sons, even me, and I was her favorite (at least that is what she told me),” PJ wrote.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, also a native of Scranton, said in a letter of condolence that Mrs. Cunnane’s “strength, unapologetic activism, and commitment to fighting for the rights of others are cause for joyous remembrance.”

Mrs. Cunnane was sensitive about her St. Patrick’s Day birthday, celebrating her 39th 49 more times. She never knew her mother, who died when she was 2 due to complications during a stillbirth, her son said. So she advocated for human rights, especially for women, the rest of her life. Her grandchildren called her Nana.

Mrs. Cunnane and son PJ around 1980. She took him to a sit-in protest at the Limerick nuclear power plant.
Courtesy of the Cunnane family
Mrs. Cunnane and son PJ around 1980. She took him to a sit-in protest at the Limerick nuclear power plant.

She took PJ to a sit-in protest at the Limerick nuclear power plant in 1969 when he was 11. She was happy later, he wrote, that he got a job at a bicycle shop when he was 12. With him working in an “environmentally acceptable” position, he could skip her trips to the demonstrations in good conscience and avoid any uncomfortable confrontations with the police or others.

Despite her recent illness, Mrs. Cunnane never lost her zest for politics and conversation. Her nurses reported to PJ that she was perusing the newspaper and complaining about the state of the union in her own endearing and "knowing sarcastic way” just a few days before she died.

Even on the day of her death, PJ wrote, she joked with her nurses. “Am I dead yet?” she asked coyly.

“We always said she was not from her generation,” PJ said.

Mrs. Cunnane (left middle of middle row ) campaigned for John F. Kennedy.
Courtesy of the Cunnane family
Mrs. Cunnane (left middle of middle row ) campaigned for John F. Kennedy.

PJ’s wife, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, posted a tribute to her mother-in-law on Instagram. The Pennsylvania Democrat wrote, “We will miss her passion, quick wit, linguine and clams — and her love and dedication to human rights and women’s rights.”

In addition to her son, Mrs. Cunnane is survived by sons Terrence, William and Chris; seven siblings; 12 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and other relatives. She was predeceased by her husband and daughter Kimber Anne.

A celebration of her life is to be later.

— Gary Miles, gmiles@inquirer.com