Douglas B. Cornell, retired White House correspondent for the Associated Press, died Feb. 20 at 75. This is an excerpt from a tribute delivered, at services for him, by Frank Cormier, who was also a longtime White House correspondent for the AP.
I first met Doug Cornell in 1946-- in the pages of a wonderful book called "Thank You, Mr. President." The author was Doug's longtime friend and fierce competitor, the late Merriman Smith of United Press International. In its pages, I met Doug Cornell and Smitty dawdling over wine at a sidewalk caf,e in Algiers. They were waiting for Franklin D. Roosevelt to return from Yalta.
The exotic setting marked only one in a series of wartime adventures for the journalistic Rover Boys. Security was so tight that, in order to travel with Roosevelt, Doug and Smitty were accredited as Secret Service agents. They would be gone with Roosevelt for days, even weeks, at a time. And they were barred from writing anything-- even after they got home.
Vicariously, I followed their progress through the book and decided that I wanted to cover the White House some day. Sixteen years later, it happened. And my schoolboy idols, Doug and Smitty, became cherished friends and colleagues.
For about 10 years, Doug and I worked side by side, day after day. Although he had been old enough to vote in the year I was born, I never thought of Doug as an older man. To me, he was a contemporary--because his spirit was ever young.
Despite his vast experience and towering reputation, he never treated me as the rookie that I was. Doug was an exceedingly modest and unassuming man. He never tried to tell me how to do my job. But he was always available with help and encouragement.
I never saw Doug Cornell angry-- except when an occasional editor would unthinkingly insert an error into his copy. During a trip to Texas, one editor decided to embellish a Cornell reference to the LBJ Ranch, calling it a "sprawling" ranch. Livid, Doug fired off a message to the miscreant: "It isn't sprawling. If it was, I would have said so."
He taught me things you do not learn in school--like the proper management of expense accounts. A meticulous man, Doug neglected no detail in accounting for his expenses. Here is an example: "Ruler to aid in tearing copy off teletype, seven cents (ten cent ruler on sale.)"
As we traveled around the country, he befriended many young AP people, often suggesting transfers to the Washington bureau for the brightest among them. It was a lifelong trait. In 1936, Doug was impressed by an obscure reporter he met while traveling through the Dakotas on Roosevelt's campaign train. Doug was so impressed that he took him aboard the train and introduced him to the president. Years later, as Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, Phil Potter loved to tell that story.
In the years just prior to his retirement, we friends of Doug Cornell were delighted to see a beautiful love story unfold before our eyes. We were filled with joy when Mrs. Nixon announced at the White House that Doug and Helen Thomas were being married. Their time together was all too brief. But during those years, Doug and Helen shared something that many people never attain.
Doug was an easy man to love. He was big-hearted and good. Yet his admirable human qualities were not unique. There must be millions like him in this world. What made Doug unique was his professional skill.
He preferred to dictate his copy by telephone. After John Kennedy's funeral, Doug went into the AP bureau to write a roundup for morning newspapers. Instead of going to a typewriter, however, he went to a remote corner of the newsroom and picked up a telephone. Dialing a colleague across the room, he began dictating. It was a flawless performance. The words flowed beautifully.
Some years ago, an editor of the Los Angeles Times wrote the AP to ask who had written a particularly striking story. He was told: "That's Douglas B. Cornell--and he always writes that way."