October 26, 2011

FROM:   Daniele C. Struppa, Ph.D.
Chancellor, Chapman University

It is with sadness that I inform you that Donna Cucunato, Associate Professor Emerita of the College of Educational Studies, passed away Saturday at her home surrounded by her family.  Admired and respected for her dedication and passion for serving students, it was only a few months ago that we celebrated her retirement.

Donna joined the faculty in 1976, bringing a breadth of knowledge with degrees in dance and psychology, each awarded Summa Cum Laude.  In addition to these qualifications, she was an accomplished dancer and dance instructor with extensive professional experience.  Her professional performances included stage, such as with the Los Angeles City Ballet and at the Hollywood Bowl, and television, including the Dean Martin Show and Grammy Awards Show.

Shortly after her arrival, Donna became director of our fledgling dance program, serving in the capacity for 16 years.  The students received nurturing support and motivation as well as firm discipline from Donna, and many of them became successful professionals in the field.  During these years there was no proper dance floor on which to practice or perform, and Donna fundraised for costumes and tours.  She played a fundamental role in the success of American Celebration, serving as choreographer for ten productions.

Her career spanned years of major growth and change.  Donna served the needs of the institution, accepting every new task with commitment and enthusiasm.  After directing the dance program, she became coordinator of the Liberal Studies program, serving in that role until her retirement. Under her leadership, the program grew to over 180 majors.  Donna taught 32 different classes in education, dance, and movement and exercise science.  A strong advocate of faculty governance, she served on 18 different committees and councils, including the academic, faculty personnel, student standards, library, and church relations, assuming leadership roles in many of them.

Despite her heavy load of teaching and service, Donna wrote and obtained numerous grants.  These included one from the California Arts Council to mainstream arts into the curriculum, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund the design of an interdisciplinary education in the arts and language.  She was a frequent consultant and presenter in the professional organizations in which she was active, such as the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and the International Tap Association.  Donna also enriched the life of community by bringing major dance companies to Chapman, including the Bella Lewitsky Company.  In light of her countless contributions, it is not surprising that Donna was nominated for the “150 Faces of Chapman” in commemoration of our 150th anniversary.

Donna’s retirement celebration demonstrated the tremendous respect and love in which she was held by her students and colleagues. Once of her former dance students stated, “Right when I think I cannot take another step, I look over and see Ms. Cucunato working even harder . . ; she pushes me to work hard through her dedication.”  A liberal studies major noted, “I remember how encouraging and complimentary Donna was to me, and it helped me build the confidence I have today.”  A colleague thanked her for being “a friend, a treasured colleague, a partner in staging musicals, and an inspiration . . . .  I have always looked to you as a sort of rock . . . when times were difficult you maintained dignity, kindness, intelligence and spirit.”  One staff member used one word to describe Donna – belief; she wrote that “Donna believed in everyone’s potential, and gave all she had to lead them to it.  She led by example, she led by her high standards, and she led with integrity, grace and encouragement.”  Another described Donna’s valiant struggle with cancer in the following words, “She faced death straight on as she faced life.”  Her dean, Dr. Don Cardinal commented that “Donna’s calm and dignified approach to work and life . . .  made her a favorite among students, staff and faculty.” Donna lived her life with passion and great joy.  In addition to her educational and professional activities, she enjoyed spending time with her family – her husband of 51 years, Chuck, daughters, Carrie and Christa, and two granddaughters, Madeline and Olivia.  Donna loved to travel and the family took many trips together. An avid gardener, the garden was featured on many garden tours.  She tackled weeding with the same commitment as she did with every task.  Chuck described her as frequently wearing her lighted hat, weeding in the dark.

A wonderful colleague and friend, we will miss Donna’s grace and elegance and warm smile.    The Cucunato Movement Education Scholarship fund was announced by the College of Educational Studies at the retirement celebration.  In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Donna’s memory to the Cucunato Movement Education Scholarship and/or the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute for Ovarian Cancer Research.

The memorial service for Donna will be Saturday, November 12, at 10:00 am in the Fish Interfaith Chapel.  A reception will follow on the Attallah Piazza.

The university extends its deepest sympathy to her family.

If you would like to share memories or photos of Donna please visit the Memorial page the Cucunato family has set up.