November 14, 1944

Fred Cuny is born in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father, Gene Cuny, is attempting to start a career as an actor. Gene eventually gives up acting and in 1952 moves back to his home state of Texas, where he becomes a local television station executive. With his wife, Charlotte, they raise four boys. Fred is the oldest.


Fred graduates from Brian Adams High School in east Dallas, already with his pilot's license and two years of high school ROTC. His goal in life is to be a Marine pilot, just like his uncle, Phil Shutler.


Attends Texas A&M University, where his tenure is distinguished more by the pranks he is thought to be a part of than his academic record, which includes several failing grades. In December 1963, when a dormitory bathroom is set on fire with burning tires soaked in gasoline and sulfur, Fred's elite unit of Marine Corps hopefuls is widely assumed to be responsible. Fred and his closest friend, Carl Long, are the prime suspects. But when no one comes forward to accept the blame for the prank that got out of control, the entire unit is disbanded. Six months later, Fred leaves Texas A&M.

Summer 1963

Between his Freshman and Sophomore year, when he is not attending a Marine camp in Quantico, Virginia, Fred works on a cargo freighter in Central and South America. This is his first taste of the Third World and the first time he sees that everyone does not live in comfortable suburbs such as the one where he grew up.


Attends Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Texas where he meets his wife, Beth, and undergoes a political metamorphosis. By the time he leaves A&I - still short enough credits to graduate - he is heavily involved in civil rights issues for Chicano students as well as free speech issues on campus.

January 31, 1966

Marries Beth in a small ceremony in Kingsville.

Summer 1966

Without enough credits to graduate from college, Fred's commission with the Marine Corps is on the line. Even though he has become a liberal political activist, he keeps his dream of serving in the Marine Corps, but needs one language credit to meet the graduation requirements necessary for his Marine commission. The Marines grant him one extension, but when he fails the course in summer school, he is informed by the Marine Corps there will be no more extensions and he is discharged from the reserves without ever receiving his commission.

Embarrassed by his academic failing, he and Beth move to Houston. He keeps the news of his discharge to himself and when he is later involved in a serious car accident that shatters his leg, he uses that as his excuse to his friends and family for not fulfilling his Marine Corps dream.

August 26, 1966

Brandan Craig Cuny, his only son, is born.

November 11, 1967

Runs as a liberal Democrat in a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The suburban Houston district is very conservative, and Fred - who spends less than $100 on the campaign - places 13th out of 16 candidates with slightly more than one percent of the vote. He would never run for elective office again, though he often talked about his one campaign and told several friends he would someday like to run for governor of Texas.

Summer 1968

Begins work on Model Cities program in Eagle Pass, Texas. This is Fred's first experience as a person with some authority - he takes more than he had - in organizing people to help themselves improve their lives.


Takes a leave of absence from a job with Carter & Burgess, a Fort Worth engineering and city planning firm, to go to Biafra where he ends up volunteering to help with the airlift of emergency food supplies. Without any real authority, he is more an observer than a participant, but comes away from the experience shocked by the mismanagement and stupidity he sees and determined to improve the way in which help is offered to people in the middle of a crisis.

December 20, 1969

Carl Long, Fred's closest friend, is killed in Vietnam when his airplane is shot down.


Takes another leave of absence from engineering job to organize an airlift to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). When the airlift falls apart, he stays on the ground working with the relief organization Oxfam. He designs and constructs refugee camps for families fleeing the civil war.

When Fred returns from Bangladesh, he decides to quit the engineering firm and start his own crisis management firm, Intertect. His initial goal is simply to collect and disseminate information on ways to handle crises such as floods, famines, earthquakes, so the same mistakes would not keep being repeated.

Christmas 1971

Major earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua. Without an invitation, Fred flies his plane to Nicaragua and gets involved in organizing refugee camps.

Early 1970's

With a staff of one, operating out of tiny offices, Intertect goes through very lean years. During one summer, to keep some money coming in, Fred does crop-dusting work throughout the Central Plains.

February 4, 1976

Earthquake in Guatemala kills 23,000 people and leaves more than a million homeless. This time Fred is asked to come down. He creates a housing reconstruction program in Guatemala that teaches local peasants how to build houses that are less likely to collapse in future earthquakes.

Following his experience in Guatemala, Fred's reputation as an innovative thinker and critic of the status quo is firmly established. Though often criticized for his independent cowboy approach, he is also respected for his creative ideas and no-nonsense faith in the people whose lives he was trying to help.

Late 1970's-early 80's

Whenever an earthquake strikes, a hurricane blows through, or famine reaches large scale proportions, Fred Cuny is on the scene. He is involved in developing the Emergency Unit of UNHCR, works with the U.S. Bureau of Refugee Affairs in Lebanon on providing assistance to Palestinians; he writes his book Disasters & Development, which quickly becomes a seminal book in disaster relief; and is increasingly involved in training seminars given around the world to spread the "Cuny approach" to handling disasters in a way that used the calamity as a catalyst to improve people's lives.


With the famine crisis in the sub-Saharan Africa, Fred is called to the Sudan to oversee the running of the burgeoning refugee camps, caused by a massive immigration from war-torn, parched Ethiopia. Using his Cesna, flown over to Africa courtesy of the US government, Fred is constantly at odds with UNHCR officials. He feels they are too cautious, unprepared and unwilling to act when the situation was worsening by the day. Becomes a strong advocate for helping refugees voluntarily return to their homes, in spite of the ongoing war in Ethiopia. Again, facing cautious, restrained reaction to the problem from UNHCR, Fred does what he can to work around the organization and give help to the returnees.


Increasingly turns his attention to man-made disasters and the political environment in which they develop. Working with Tamils in Sri Lanka, Fred observes the ill-fated efforts by the Indian Peacekeeping Force. He later uses it as an example for what not to do when the military tries to intervene in humanitarian work.


The Gulf War: Fred managed to be among the first Americans to ride into Kuwait City, after convincing American military that a serious effort needed to be made to prevent Kuwaitis from taking reprisals against Palestinians following the war.

April 1991

Called away from Kuwait by the State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to deal with worsening Kurdish refugee situation along Turkish border with Iraq. In record time, Fred is able to bring Kurds down from the mountains and resettle them in their homes. First example of Fred's close involvement with a military engaged in humanitarian work. Also meets then-US Ambassador to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz, who, upon becoming president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, plays an important role in widening Fred's influence within Washington foreign policy circles.


Takes on an assessment of the needs of the former Soviet Union. Identifies Chechnya as a potential powder keg. Comes up with massive plan for helping Russia and other new republics. The plan is largely ignored.

Involved in worsening crisis in Somalia, through program designed to provide currency for grain purchases (called "monetization"). Inevitably gets caught up in decision making on use of American troops to protect aid workers. Draws up plans which are mentioned in Op-Ed pages, but ignored in the White House.


Goes to Bosnia for first time, working for George Soros. Identifies water and gas as major emergencies. Comes up with idea of building water filtration plant, secretly moving it into Sarajevo and concealing it in an unused highway tunnel.

Becomes a strong advocate for the Bosnia cause. Lobbies aggressively from Sarajevo and on frequent trips back to Washington for stronger U.S. action in the Balkans


Water is ready to be put into Sarajevan's pipes, but local government won't allow it for a number of reasons. By 1995, when "Fred's water" is finally flowing, the mayor of Sarajevo, who formerly fought against the water, admits it saved Sarajevo during a prolonged shut down by Serbs.

November 1994

Returns to northern Iraq for assessment of current situation. Involved in another traffic accident, Fred injures his leg and back.

December 1994

Is asked by Soros Foundation to go to Chechnya. In spite of physical pain and need for rest, Fred Cuny responds like a fire fighter to the alarm bell.

January 1995

First trip to Chechnya. Says destruction in Grozy makes Sarajevo seem like a picnic. Vows to evacuate people trapped in Grozny by arranging a cease-fire.

February-March 1995

Returns to the U.S. and gives briefings, lectures and appears on talk shows discussing the situation in Chechnya. Even writes an article for The New York Review of Books, marking the first time Fred had published such a political and pointed attack in a publication with a larger circulation than most of the disaster journals he had previously written for.

April 1995

In spite of advice, pleas and some efforts to stop him from going, Fred Cuny returns to Chechnya, where he disappears and is now presumed dead.

home .  who killed fred cuny .  map of cuny's world .  from his laptop .  on the life .  his radio interviews .  special reports .  friends & colleagues .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online