Robert Glenn CORNWELL, Sr.
b. April 5, 1926, Wabasha, Minnesota
d. December 21, 2013, Roseville, California
Raised in the village of Wabasha, Minnesota, Bob grew up navigating the Mississippi River and exploring its sloughs. In summer he and his friends boated and fished, skated and built bonfires on the ice in winter. His own father died when Bob was only 10, a trauma which colored the rest of his life. At that young age he was thrust into the role of ‘the man of the house’ – a responsibility which weighed heavily on him.
Bob’s lifelong devotion to education started serendipitously. A laboring job on the Milwaukee Railroad and the urging of his late father’s business partner sent him to the Hamline University admission’s office just days before 1944 fall classes began. On the railroad his nickname had been ‘Lean To’ because he sometimes leaned against the signal poles rather than putting his shoulder to the shovel handle. His boss told Bob he had no future on the railroad. He was right!
Bob’s worldview was shaped by liberal Hamline professors and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Depression, he listened to FDR’s ‘fireside chats.’ Despite coming from a long line of Republicans, Bob never wavered in his Democrat loyalties (excepting the candidacy of Socialist Norman Thomas in 1948), serving as a delegate to both state and national conventions.
He frequently recounted the stunned family breakfast on December 7, 1941 where they learned of the Pearl Harbor attack. No historical event influenced Bob like World War II, which continued to fascinate him to his final days.
Bob’s first teaching job after graduating from Hamline took him to Long Prairie, Minnesota. He taught government and coached basketball and football at LPHS, but fled the fierce winters after four years on an improbable audio-visual scholarship to Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley.
The self-described greatest day of Bob’s life was when he first saw Maxine while preparing to register for his graduate program at CSCE. Maxine was working at the registration line for undergraduates. Bob could not take his eyes off her. He later said ‘it was love at first sight.’ They were married within months.
After Bob earned his Master’s degree, he and Maxine moved west again where he taught at Portola, California. Four years later he become a counselor at San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, a calling he was to follow for 37 years. Bob helped generations of students at San Juan, counseling them in personal conflicts, substance abuse and academic success. He gained a profoundly compassionate view of the needs of young people.
Maria Brugger was a student in Bob’s first class at San Juan. In those days, a counselor followed a class from entry as freshmen through graduation. Maria later said: ‘As my high school counselor, Bob recognized strengths I didn’t know I had and challenged me to accomplish things I didn’t know I could. Bob inspired everyone who knew him by the way he persevered through challenges.’ As an adult she became a good friend and served on the San Juan scholarship committee with Bob.
In 1960, with a growing family, Bob and Maxine found the land on which they would build their home. At the time, many of his SJHS colleagues thought Orangevale too remote. But Bob was happy to live in a bucolic setting where the kids had space to roam and play. For 52 years their home was his haven: quiet, secluded and with a lovely view. Bob was physically active there, building fences, harvesting almonds, chasing skunks out of the hen house and tending a garden and fruit trees.
Bob’s love of travel was sparked by friend Leonard Waehler. They explored Europe on trips to the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki Olympics and ventured to Mexico in 1949. In 1979 Bob traded jobs and houses with Jeff Boyle, a teacher from Shepparton, Australia.
Bob, Maxine and daughter Carrie circled the Pacific on their way to and from ‘Down Under,’ with many attendant adventures. After retiring they visited the far reaches of Alaska, as well as Mexico, England, Africa and returned to Australia.
On his retirement from San Juan in 1994, Bob founded a scholarship there to help advance the cause for which he worked tirelessly during his career: helping struggling students to reach college. Rather than the valedictorians or children of comfortable means, he most wanted to encourage those who might otherwise not have the chance to go to college. Many Cornwell scholarship recipients were the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Bob is survived by Maxine, his wife of 60 years, daughters Caroline (Gregory Redmond), Launa and Nancy (Robert Wolvington), son Robert, Jr. (Cathryn Thurow) and grandchildren Alexander, Rose and Emma.
Bob’s memorial service will be on Sunday, January 5 at 2:00 PM at his long time church, the Unitarian Universalist congregation located at 2425 Sierra Boulevard, Sacramento, CA 95825. Contributions in his memory may be sent to: San Juan High School Alumni Association, Robert Cornwell Scholarship Fund, Box 103, Citrus Heights, CA 95611.