Daily Egyptian

Remembering Bill Cornell

By Brent Meske, @brentmeskeDE

“Don’t forget to park the van, don’t forget to do the workouts,” a 75-year-old Saluki Athletics Hall of Famer would tell his wife.

These were the thoughts of Bill Cornell, who ran track at SIU more than 50 years ago, as he suffered from dementia. He died late Sunday, and his dementia was a side effect of Parkinson’s disease — which he had since 1989, according to his wife, Rose Cornell. He passed at the couple’s home in The Villages, Fla.

Even with a deteriorating mind, Bill, an SIU Hall of Fame track and field athlete and coach, never forgot the sport Rose called his first love. 

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Once the dementia started in December, it caused hallucinations, and Rose said his were always about track and field.

The couple married on April 1, 1961 and left for America from their homes in England a day later. They arrived in St. Louis on April 3 and Bill started school at SIU on April 4. He was 20, she was 17.

A native of Chelmsford, Cornell became a three-time All-American at SIU, a U.S. Track and Field Federation champion and was named SIU’s Athlete of the Year in 1962.

“Bill Cornell was one of the nicest, thoughtful, good guys in this world. They don’t make good men nowadays, and he was a good man.” – Rose

She said Bill did not have much interest in coming to America for college until Hall of Fame track and field coach Lew Hartzog called him repeatedly. 

“I was really saddened by the news, but I know it’s a relief for him because he had struggled for awhile,” said Connie Price-Smith, former SIU track and field and cross-country coach. “It’s a sad day for track and field as a whole. He was a great mentor to a lot of people.”

Cornell received his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1965 and completed a master’s degree a year later.

Tom Ashman, a lifelong friend and former teammate, said he and Cornell bonded over the fact that they were both married. He said the couples would often hang out during their time at SIU.

“We didn’t live the normal, average college social life,” he said. “We didn’t have the money to go out. Maybe scrape up enough money to buy a six-pack and spend Friday or Saturday night, or both, playing cards.”

When they were in college, Ashman’s parents would have Bill and Rose over to his home in Murphysboro for Thanksgiving and Christmas because they could not go back to England for the holidays.

The duo remained friends after their time at SIU as both went into coaching — Cornell at Murray State and SIU, Ashman at Murphysboro High School and John A. Logan College.

Ashman said he and his wife Paula would visit Bill and Rose in the summers when he was coaching at Murray State. He said Cornell lived on Kentucky Lake, which is approximately 18 miles east of the university.

Cornell began his coaching career at Murray State in 1967. He led the Racers for 15 years and won three Ohio Valley Conference championships in cross-country and was a four-time OVC Coach of the Year.

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“That was probably some of his favorite years because it was a small school that was unknown,” Rose said. “He had several Olympians and All-Americans there.”

Cornell coached Tommy Turner at Murray State; Turner became the first ever OVC athlete to win an NCAA Championship.

The SIU alumnus returned to coach cross-country and track and field in 1982. He led the Dawgs to five Missouri Valley Conference cross-country championships and eight MVC track championships — four indoor and four outdoor. Cornell earned MVC Coach of the Year all of the track seasons.

“When he made the jump back to his alma mater, that was one of his highlights too,” Rose said. “You know, everyone wants to come back to their alma mater.”

Cornell coached 11 Olympians and 49 All-Americans at Murray State and SIU.

“Southern Illinois University, the SIU track and field Salukis, have lost an icon.” – Ashman

Once Cornell came back to coach at SIU, Ashman said visits became more frequent, but even if they didn’t see each other for a month they would stay in contact.

They were such close friends that when the Ashmans brought their first daughter home from the hospital, Bill and Rose were waiting at their house to greet the new family.

Even after he retired, Cornell was still always on campus.

Softball coach Kerri Blaylock said Cornell would often attend games and ask how she and the team was doing — despite his health.

“He would struggle to get down the hallway but it was always a smile, hug and, ‘Kerri, how are you?,'” she said. “Even when he was struggling with his health, he was always around and wanted to be active.”

Though a nice guy, he was always incredibly competitive, which Ashman said always set him apart.

“Bill Cornell was, among all the athletes I’ve ever been around, the most fierce competitor of any of them,” he said. “He had a tremendous heart and a tremendous will to win. He had a tremendous personality to go along with it.”

But Cornell’s will to win went beyond the track.

Bill McMinn, who worked at the Recreation Center for 25 years, said he and Cornell would often play racquetball during lunch.

“Even then, he would try to find ways to get in my head and mess with me to distract me,” McMinn said. “He was a real good guy, laid back and funny.”

Ashman said it was this competitiveness — and the love he had for Rose — that kept Cornell fighting after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly three decades ago.

“Rose and Bill were as close as man and woman could possibly be,” he said. “Rose was one of the reasons Bill was able to survive so long with such a devastating disease.”

Brent Meske can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3333

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