Bellevue and Tennis Led to Exec's Success

By Shelly Whitehead, Post staff reporter
The Kentucky Post, published on May 1, 2000

Tom Cundy grew up in Bellevue in a single-parent home, where money was scarce.

But he knew about wealth. His mother sold furs at Shillito's, keeping the rich warm and fashionable.

And Cundy's skill on Bellevue's tennis courts - built by the Depression's Works Progress Administration - led him to tournaments at country clubs, where wealth's advantages also were on display.

Tennis was Cundy's ticket to college. As Bellevue High School's star player, he took home the 1951 Kentucky state high school championship, then accepted a scholarship to Florida State University.

After graduation and service in the Marine Corps, Cundy began a career in insurance that would make him wealthy.

This week in Washington, D.C., Cundy will receive the 2000 Horatio Alger Award, honoring success in the face of adversity.

Now 67 and living near his Cundy Insurance Co. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Cundy credits his success to the Bellevue community that nurtured his dreams and competitive instincts.

Q: Where did you live as a child in Bellevue, and what was your life like then?

A: I lived in a very small home, and the story is that I didn't have a bed to sleep on. That's because I slept on a fold-up cot. But my friends in college said I didn't need a bed because I never slept anyway. I was a little hyper. I was always afraid I was going to miss something.

But I lived at 441 Foote Ave. The house is still there and every time I come in everybody gets to go to 441 Foote and get their picture taken. Then we go down to the Loyal Cafe, where I hung out at Foote and Center. If I really want a good lunch, I go there. And I can afford to go anywhere now.

Q: Your parents divorced when you were 16, but you've said your father was rarely involved in your life. How did your mother, Nettie Mae Maloney, earn a living and what was she like?

A: My mother worked at Shillito's. She was the head of the fur department.

My mother was a very principled, proper lady who had been a straight-A student. She and I were quite a team. She was just a very disciplined, never-do-one-penny-dishonest person. And my mother was very supportive of my tennis. She was a good tennis player when she was young, but she didn't push me into it.

Q: How did you take up tennis then?

A: I started in the sixth grade and back then the Kentucky state high school tennis championships were held in Bellevue. So as a young boy I went to the tournament because it was in Bellevue. I was even a ball boy.

All my buddies played tennis back then. We all hung out at that stadium. The WPA build that stadium in 1936, and it was wonderful and everybody just grew up in that stadium.

Q: Once you began competing outside of Bellevue, were you ever intimidated by the world of wealth and privilege you encountered on country club tennis courts?

A: When I look back on my life and being thrust into these country clubs - because tennis was then a country club sport - with a lot of affluent people, when we didn't even have a car and I didn't have a home that I wanted to take anybody into, I think that gave me the drive and energy to succeed.

I was not really a gifted, great athlete, but I saw winning the state high school tennis tournament as my opportunity to go to college when my family couldn't afford to send me to college. That was everything. That was my whole life right there.

Q: Did tennis help you in ways other than simply providing your ticket to college?

A: The thing I loved about tennis was the fact that you're out there all by yourself. Your coach can't help you. Your mother can't help you. So tennis is a lot like life is.

Like today, we (Cundy Insurance) do business with some of the largest corporations in the world. We have been thrust into those kinds of situations. My tennis days have been an enormous help to me in that I have to depend on myself.

I've always been a people person, and what I love about insurance is that at the end of the day you knew what you accomplished. It's a business that is very quantifiable: the harder you work, the more money you make.

Q: Speaking of money, how do you like having plenty of it these days?

A: I really honestly have to pinch myself sometimes . . . . Like growing up poor and not belonging to any country clubs? Well, now I'm really a 'club' guy. I belong to four golf clubs alone and probably about ten clubs total. I just love clubs.

And when I come back to Bellevue, I go right to the Loyal Cafe. I have a bunch of buddies from Bellevue coming to the Horatio Alger Awards dinner.

Q: Sounds like your friends here still mean a great deal to you.

A: They say I've got the best network in the United States. That's one thing my grandfather stressed that to make a friend you have to be a friend.

I have between 120 and 150 of my friends who will be at that dinner, and it's so unbelievable because of all the recipients this year it appears we're going to raise $300,000 to $400,000 to give to the Horatio Alger Association for scholarships.

All these kids are there to get them. When they all get up and tell their stories - well, when you talk about adversity what I suffered was nothing.