Last week, Yankton lost one of its true luminaries.
John Cornette, a Yankton High School (YHS) guidance counselor from the mid 1960s until 2000 who saw his department’s transformation from vocational guidance to counseling in the modern sense and implemented the honors and GED programs, passed away Aug. 21 at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital. He was 85.
"He is one of the all-time terrific leaders that we’ve had in Yankton," said Bob Winter, the former YHS activities director. "He’s the ultimate guidance counselor and educator. He started many things because of his leadership but was able to talk to anybody."
Cornette came to Yankton in the mid-1960s after earning his degree in guidance and counseling from Columbia University in New York City.
"He was one of the first nationally certified counselors in South Dakota," said former YHS guidance counselor Terry Crandall, who worked closely with Cornette. "He was a pioneer in the high-school counseling profession."
During that time, the Guidance Office was transformed into the Counseling Center, Crandall said.
"We were in that boat together," he said. "We were able to take it to another level to really put kids first in that program."
Crandall also said that, as a young guidance counselor, he learned a lot from Cornette.
"He really showed me a lot of the ins and outs of a large-school counseling office," Crandall said. "My impulsiveness sometimes would get the better of me and he would be able to say, ‘OK, let’s calm down.’ John always said, ‘Things can take care of themselves. If it’s a hot situation, step back for a moment before you step in.’ That has proven to be wise advice for me in all kinds of situations."
Cornette also had a great impact on his successor in the counseling center, Marc Bies, who began his career in the Yankton School District in 1991 and later went into counseling. Cornette oversaw Bies’ internship for his certification at YHS.
"When I went into counseling, John was one of my mentors," Bies said. "My father was also a counselor before his untimely death in 1971, so John took on some of that role with me, not only being a mentor to me in a collegial way, but also as a father. He was a colleague and a friend."
During his time as a counselor, Cornette instituted, among other things, the Honor’s Program and the GED program. He served as chief examiner for the GED program for 31 years and saw 2,500 people obtain their GED.
"Programs start where there’s a need," Winter said. "He saw a need for people that did not have a high school degree that needed to get it to proceed in life. Once it got going, everybody could see how important it was."
When the South Dakota State Legislature closed the University of South Dakota (USD) at Springfield in 1984, Cornette worked with David Lorenz, then director of Admissions at USD in Vermillion, to find schools for the students who were displaced by the Springfield closure.
"His assistance to me was incredibly valuable because of his background as a counselor," said Lorenz, now an academic advisor in USD’s Academic & Career Planning Center. "The students were frustrated because they had lost their school, so they were working through frustration and anger, and then, finally, were looking for help in terms of finding someplace where they could finish their studies. It was an interesting and challenging time."
Lorenz said that, as director of admissions, he would visit Yankton High School, and it was apparent that Cornette had good relationships with the students and treated them with respect, like he would treat adults.
"He was somebody they could count on for steady guidance," Lorenz said.
The son of a farmer from Alliance, Nebraska, Cornette grew up farming and even rode a bronco in the rodeo, said his son, Michael Cornette. John served in the Korean War and then married Lyndall King in Alliance, Nebraska, in 1955.
Cornette also became very involved with the Elks Club in Yankton.
"I can remember when we were so pleased that the school guidance counselor was serving as our youth activities director, and he was in charge of a scholarship committee," said longtime Elks member Jim Van Osdel. "Then, he became an officer and an exalted ruler, and then was elected to be a district deputy."
According to Michael Cornette, his father once told him that if there ever was an organization worth his time, it should also be worth it to move up and lead it.
Cornette followed his own advice and often rose to a leadership role in the groups with which he volunteered.
Cornette was named exalted ruler (local president) of Elks Lodge #994 at a critical juncture when the lodge was changing locations. He served in several national and state roles, including state president, and he was South Dakota’s Drug and Alcohol Awareness chair for 38 years.
"He had been in the Korean War," Winter said. "As he got older, and he and I talked about it, his experiences definitely benefitted him in a lot of tough situations. Like, maybe the Elks cutting budget or moving the Elks (lodge)."
Cornette became the longest serving person on the Elks Drug Information Committee, a position from which he only stepped down a few years ago, Van Osdel said.
During the summer months, Cornette operated Cornette Builders which, though it kept him quite busy, allowed him to spend quality time with his son.
"He would often talk about working on the farm growing up with his grandpa and his dad," Michael Cornette said. "I worked with him from when I was 12 years old. It was the same (with Cornette Builders), but it was on a roof."
The long hours of roof work were far from boring, Michael said.
"He explained to me his whole theory on psychology one day," Michael said. "He believed in existentialism, and we talked about that, and we talked about Carl Jung. I forgot about that conversation for 35 to 40 years, but if someone wants to talk about existentialism, I can be a part of that conversation because of my dad."
Even though he wasn’t raising his family on a farm, John Cornette did his best to make sure his children had some basic farm knowledge.
"On road trips, he would make sure all the kids knew, ‘Is that corn or is that soybeans? That’s alfalfa.’" Michael recalled. "And we knew it. We knew our cows, because he would just talk about it. It was awesome growing up with him because he was always teaching."
John Cornette also maintained his calm with his own children as well as with those he counseled.
His daughter, Julie Jensen, talked about a road trip the family took in the 1960s — in the days before air conditioning and seatbelts — in which she stood up in the car behind her father’s seat and talked to him non-stop for most of the journey.
"At one point, I dumped a malted down his back. He very calmly said, ‘Julie, sit down.’ He pulled into a gas station and cleaned himself up as best as he could," Jensen said. "And darned if about two days later, I didn’t do the exact same thing to him. This time, he pulled into a gas station and said we need seatbelts installed in the back of this car."
John Cornette’s funeral is at 11 a.m. on Friday at United Church of Christ in Yankton, with burial at a later date.
Cornette has one more journey to make before he rests. Per his wishes, he will be interred in the Nebraska Veterans Cemetery in Alliance.
"My dad would have taken great pride in that he served our country and was able to be buried in his hometown," Michael Cornette said.
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