News traveled swiftly last week about the unexpected death of Vera Cornish, a midstate icon who left her mark on Harrisburg’s business and nonprofit communities over several decades through her words, deeds and her ability to bring people together.
When Cornish took the stage in front of an audience, her outgoing personality and positive outlook on life was infectious to those who watched and listened.
To get an idea what the professional life coach and publisher of The Urban Connection of the Capital Region magazine in Harrisburg could do to motivate people, watch her keynote speech from August’s convocation at her alma mater, Misericordia University in Dallas, Luzerne County. During the roughly 15-minute speech, Cornish managed to get young and old alike to stand and dance to the Frankie Beverly & Maze funk song “Before I Let Go,” after getting the crowd to ponder what truly exhilarates them and makes them want to jump out of bed.
Cornish, 64, also spoke about her path to higher learning, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college, and eventually earning a master’s degree in education with a specialization in multicultural curriculum development from Misericordia in 1993.
She didn’t grow up in a family that sat around the dinner table and talked about future opportunities, she said. But what was instilled in her was that education was her “pathway to freedom.”
“The energy you put into something is going to determine the results that you get out of whatever you do,” Cornish said in the speech. “Take action on the things you want to become true in your life.”
Originally from Wilkes-Barre, Cornish knew an education was what would allow her to succeed. So, she scrubbed floors for 50 cents an hour and work as a maid for wealthy residents in the Poconos to pay for her schooling at Penn State. She would go on to teach after graduation and eventually pursued an independent study program at Misericordia.
It was when she moved to Central Pennsylvania in 1995 that she began to leave her mark on a wider audience, serving as the first director of institutional diversity at Harrisburg Area Community College.
Dr. John J. Sygielski, president of HACC, said Cornish paved the way for her successors in the role of promoting diversity and inclusion at the college. Cornish always served as a strong advocate for studying at HACC and the benefits of students pursuing a community college education, he said.
Sygielski said Cornish served as a mentor to many of the staff at the school, and he would call on her often for advice. He said in his first week as president in 2011, Cornish personally drove him to State College to introduce him to educators at Penn State she felt would be important for him to know.
Cornish’s impact on Harrisburg itself may have been even greater than just HACC. She created the annual Martin Luther King Breakfast and The Women of Heritage Leadership Breakfast.
Through her company Cornish & Associates, she advised organizations small and large on empowerment strategies and diversity in the workplace since 1999, teaming up with The Hershey Co., The GIANT Co. and Capital BlueCross. One of her most recent works, the book “Dare to Dream,” published last year, is filled with motivational stories from her life.
Connectivity was Cornish’s most important personal trait, brokering to serve as a facilitator for conversations, Sygielski said.
“Her legacy will be bringing people together to enhance the communities that are part of this tapestry of Central Pennsylvania, as a bridge builder, as a connector, as a cheerleader, as a promoter, engager and challenger,” Sygielski said.
Tributes to Cornish began appearing early on after the news of her passing on Feb. 26.
David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, said Cornish was serving on the Chamber’s board when he joined the organization in 2001, becoming fast friends. Black pointed to her welcoming and encouraging nature and her belief in the potential of Harrisburg as a community.
“Vera was a force in our region,” Black said. “She was a strong advocate and passionate participant in the advancement of diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our region, particularly our business community. She was always upbeat, always had a major hug for friends old and new, and she was always working a room, connecting people and causes in her unique powerful, yet gentle and kind style.”
Una Martone, president and CEO of Leadership Harrisburg Area, met Cornish in 2007 when she started working for the organization. Even before they met, there was “a huge build-up” of the way people spoke about Cornish and what she had done for the community, she said.
When they finally met, Cornish greeted her with a hug and was quick to give her insights and suggestions to improve Leadership Harrisburg. Cornish also didn’t hesitate to accept Martone’s offer to volunteer with the group, serving for years on the marketing and public relations committee.
“Not only did I get the chance to meet this community icon, but I had the chance to work with her almost right away,” Martone said. “She was full of openness, honesty, candidness and frankness. She did not hold back, and because of that everybody around her learned. We gained new perspectives. She wanted people to learn and gain insights.”
In Cornish’s own words, her own experiences guided her life lessons for others to follow.
“Learn from the past, live in today and cast a vision for your future,” Cornish said at the Misericordia speech in August. “Build relationships with great people. Some will be for a season, and some will be for a lifetime.”