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Get to Know Board Member – Dr. Dan Cuneo

Dr. Dan Cuneo, Board of Education PresidentFebruary 23, 2022 - When Dr. Dan Cuneo decided to retire in 2001, he was 51 years old. He’d worked for the courts and other state entities for many years, mostly in Illinois but also in Missouri, as a clinical psychologist. His work has included evaluating people for mental fitness to stand trial, as well as cases that involved child deaths and custody of children. At times, he said, he’d been grateful for the hour-long drive home from the maximum security hospital in Chester, Illinois, to his home in the St. Louis area. It was time he’d used to put the stressors of his workday in his rear-view mirror.

To celebrate his retirement, he planned a vacation in Myrtle Beach, Virginia, where he rented a house that would accommodate 16 of his family members. The Cuneos’ flight schedule had given them a layover in Atlanta, where he’d heard his name paged on the airport intercom as he was awaiting his plane. There was a phone call for him from a judge, one who knew the quality of Cuneo’s work, who wasn’t going to let him ride off into the sunset yet.

He laughs as he relates their conversation. “He said he had two people at the detention center he wanted me to see. I told him I was retired and going on vacation. I don’t know whether he didn’t believe me or hoped it wasn’t true, but he hung up, knowing I’d be happy to return to my work as soon as the trip was over. My wife said it was the first time she’d seen me smile in three days. I guess I didn’t really want to retire.” And he didn’t.

Cuneo’s steadfast nature can be seen in his work for SSD, as well. He has represented the Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, and Mehlville school districts of Subdistrict 2 since 2000. For the past year, he has led the Board as its president and senior member.

Describe your professional life.

I perform mental fitness and sanity evaluations for the judicial districts of Southern Illinois, but sometimes also the federal government agencies. My office is in Belleville. I worked for the Illinois Department of Mental Health for 24 years, mostly at Chester Mental Health Center, where I was the clinic director. I also consult with a variety of state agencies. I’m chair of the Illinois Child Death Review Team, which reviews all child deaths to determine the cause. We make a report to the Department of Child and Family Services based on the details of each case[3] [4] . I would say we review three to four cases a month in this region, but statewide it probably goes as high as 25-30 per month.

On any given day, I spend as much time in jails or the courts as I do in my office. This may be surprising to most people, but the people who need mental health care the most are in jails and prisons, not hospitals. At one time, we had large state hospitals in Illinois that served many thousands of people who needed mental health care. The commitment laws have changed, and people are supposed to be treated in community hospitals or treatment facilities, but those programs often go unfunded, and many people eventually end up in jails.

I also occasionally teach mental health and law as an adjunct professor at SIU-E School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois–Chicago.

What life experiences made you want to serve on the SSD Board?

I became interested in the welfare of kids years ago.

I used to do many of the custody evaluations in the Southern Illinois area. In 1987-88, I helped create the Children First program for divorced parents. If you get a divorce in Illinois, you have to go through this program if you have kids.

I think SSD’s programming is excellent. In St. Louis County, one in six kids receives special services from SSD. I’ve worked in other places where I’ve asked for IEPs or programming, and SSD is in a completely different class. I can’t find anywhere that offers the departments and number of services provided by SSD.

Describe your home life and who’s in your household.

I’ve been married for 47 years to my wife, Chris, who’s a great mom and teaches young students at an elementary school in South County. We have two kids– my son and daughter are both attorneys. We have two grandchildren. Everyone lives in the area and we see or talk to them every day.

I grew up near The Hill in St. Louis. I went to Catholic seminary schools, Prep South and Cardinal Glennon, then on to college at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, SIU-E, and finally, the University of South Dakota for my Ph.D.

What are you most proud of accomplishing?

My two kids and a happy family!

We’ve done some great work in SSD over the past 20 years. The District has come a long way and we’re still getting better. I’m proud of that.

I could give a list of awards I’ve received, but I’m really proud of helping put together the Children First Program in Illinois. It’s done wonders in helping kids in the middle of a divorce.  The state’s Child Death Review Team undoubtedly has saved some kids’ lives.

Who has been the greatest influence on your life?

The greatest gift I’ve ever had was my family. I come from an Italian family; if you meet one of us, you have to meet everyone.

My father may have been the kindest person I’ve ever met, and my mother was the strongest-willed person I’ve ever met. She basically raised four boys because my dad traveled a lot.

My brothers and I are all completely different in what we chose to do in life. Bob is a president  of an international consulting company in Clayton. Mike lives in California– he was the guitar player for 3 Dog Night back in the day. But his real claim to fame is in writing jingles– he wrote the theme music for “The Sopranos” on HBO, as well as the one for “Judge Judy.” Tom went to Florissant Valley Community College and got an associate’s degree in computers when computers were still pretty new– he went on to work at 3M and eventually owned his own company on the East Coast.

What keeps you awake at night?

It depends. I try to separate my home life from what I have to do in my professional life.

Describe your favorite meal or dish.

I like cookies. There are no bad cookies. I also like ice cream and Italian food at Napoli’s. I’m pretty easygoing. We like going to CJ Muggs for the grandkids.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

Play golf, not well. I also make sure I go to the gym three times a week because I have to. I like to read, but it seems I’m always reading police files. I always tell myself I will pick up a book at the airport and read something good on the top 10 nonfiction list.

If you could meet and chat with anyone in the world (dead or alive), who would it be?

Bishop Desmond Tutu. He’s fascinating. I heard him speak once, and I was just enthralled. How did he survive? How did he continue to be in South Africa and not give up? At one time, he was the most feared man in South Africa. He talked about the time in his country’s history when, if you were Black, you could not be educated. This one individual changed the course of history in South Africa through nonviolent means by just doing what he thought was right.