The Verde Valley recently lost one of its most major philanthropists: John Cornelius, 98, died April 5 due to complications following a stroke.
The headlines about him written by half a dozen of our reporters over the years summarize his contributions to our community: “VOC veteran gives of himself to help others,” “Village of Oak Creek man never quits helping vets,” “VOC vet does another tour of duty,” “Help John Cornelius take care of veterans on Pearl Harbor Day,” “Cornelius finds another way to help disabled vets” and “Cornelius collects $180K for vets.”
With military precision, Cornelius would drop off or mail in a hand-written press release prior to these dates announcing he would be in front of Weber’s IGA in the Village of Oak Creek, holding a raffle and collecting money to donate to the VA hospital.
Invariably he would politely call to confirm we received his note and would be sending a photographer to the event.
“Yes, John, of course we will,” we’d say, because by the time he called, our photojournalists had already scheduled themselves to shoot his event. He was one of our newspaper’s favorites.
In the next week’s edition, we would publish photos of Cornelius, local officials, veterans, residents, Weber IGA’s owner Jake Weber and his staff alongside Cornelius as they collected funds to help disabled veterans and also report the amount of money he collected.
A few weeks afterward, we would receive a press release and sometimes a photo from the VA hospital announcing Cornelius had dropped off a check — for $18,000 or $15,000 or $20,000. And there in the VA photo would be Cornelius, with a big smile, surrounded by veterans or VA workers, thanking him for donating money to the hospital for his fellow veterans, some his age, some far younger who served in wars decades after Cornelius left the service.
Born in McLaughlin, S.D., on April 23, 1918, Cornelius was one of 10 children of Wense and Frances Cornelius. He joined the U.S. Army in 1940 after he was turned down by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, according a story we wrote in 2011. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cornelius’ unit was serving on the coast, waiting for Japanese submarines the military expected but which never appeared.
He served five years in North Africa, Italy and the Middle East as a first lieutenant with the 85th Infantry Division and worked as an infantry commander and a staff intelligence officer until his separation in November 1945.
Although he never mentioned it, Cornelius was awarded two Bronze Stars: One for shooting a sniper before the sniper was able to shoot anyone else, and a second for taking out an enemy fortification along with his platoon sergeant.
Even though his military service ended more than 70 years ago, he never forgot the men and women alongside whom he served nor his lifelong duty to others who have proudly worn the uniform. He could have eased into complacent retirement in his later years, but instead kept serving with eagerness and joy, and always sincerely thankful for every dollar, dime, handshake or kind word that came his way, then passed them on to the disabled veterans he served.
Even in death, Cornelius asks residents to aid veterans. In his obituary, in lieu of flowers, Cornelius asks that people instead give to the Northern Arizona Healthcare System in Prescott.
Our sincerest condolences go to his survivors: His wife of 60 years, Peggy, his daughter Cathleen and son-in-law John, his brothers Paul and Bob and his sister Mabel. We were honored that he shared his life with us and did so much for the veterans of Northern Arizona.
He leaves a legacy you should be forever be proud of and to which we are indebted. We shall not look upon his like again.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Christopher Fox Graham