There was very little small talk with Bob Cornett.
Conversations with Bob quickly moved to talking about big ideas, grand plans and important issues.
Bob died April 11 in his home near Georgetown University in Georgetown, Kent. He was 89.
I met Bob for the first time on a trip to meet the extended Cornett family because our daughter, AnnaMarie, and Roy Miller Cornett (Bob’s grandson) were planning to get married in summer 2002. It was an outdoor gathering on a sprawling bluegrass lawn outside of Georgetown, when Bob and I sat down at a table for our first visit.
I liked him from the very start. It was an extended, stimulating, enlightening, interesting conversation – the first of many we would come to enjoy over the years.
He always had a twinkle in his eye when he saw me. We would exchange greetings, a quick update and then we would quickly settle in serious conversation – usually a topic of his choosing.
Regardless of the topic, a conversation with Bob almost always wove in the theme of “community.” He was passionate about it and always said the word with emphasis – community. He was curious about the Freeman community in which I grew up, and in which our children (our son and his granddaughter-in-law) grew up and where Bix and I continue to live. But his curiosity was less about who we are and what we do; it was more about how we live and what we value. It was less about statistics or details and more about relationships and culture. He was fascinated by Schmeckfest and he subscribed to the Courier so he could keep up with all the facets of life in Freeman.
Bob loved to talk about his latest projects and dreams and how to execute his latest plans.
• • •
Bob described himself as a “retired bureaucrat;” he became the state budget director for Kentucky when he was 29 and went on to serve an illustrious career with the Council of State Governments. But his passion was “community.”
That led him to initiate and nurture projects that promoted collaboration and encouraged people to participate in something they valued. He railed against “top-down” controlling influences and viewed – and encouraged – “ground-up” efforts as the most effective agents of change.
There’s no better example than The Festival of the Bluegrass.
One of Bob’s legacies – which he shares with his wife, Jean (who died in 2015) – is The Festival of the Bluegrass. They began the music festival in 1974 as a family project and that model continues today. The 2019 festival, June 6-9, will be the 46th Festival of the Bluegrass. About a decade ago, Bob and Jean began transferring the responsibility of producing the festival to their grandson Roy and his wife, AnnaMarie. Today they lead the project in the same spirit as Bob and Jean did – with generous help from family and friends.
Held annually the second full weekend of June just outside of Lexington, Kent., it’s the oldest bluegrass music festival in the bluegrass region of Kentucky. It features some of the best bluegrass groups from across the country and typically attracts more than 10,000 people, many of them families and friends who come together every June to camp and enjoy traditional bluegrass music. And it’s not just the music on the main stage; it’s also the jam sessions that spring up around campfires and continue into the wee hours of the morning.
But, Bob told me, it wasn’t the music that he was passionate about. For him, it’s the community spirit that’s a consistent and constant thread of the festival. The festival, which officially starts on Thursday and runs through Sunday noon, also includes a three-day bluegrass music camp for kids age six to 18 that starts several days before the festival. Workshop sessions feature professional musicians teaching youth to play traditional bluegrass instruments – bass, banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. The kids, who often go to become excellent musicians – Alison Krauss is among them, by the way – are the first to take the main stage for a short set before the professionals open the festival every Thursday evening.
Bob always beamed the brightest when he watched their youthful energy and the traditional bluegrass music they created spilling from the stage to the sea of families and friends in lawn chairs in the outdoor concert area.
“This is what this is all about,” he would tell me – with enthusiasm – as we watched together. “It’s about preserving the culture and community.”
Indeed; the International Bluegrass Music Association says, “The Festival of the Bluegrass helped shape the early bluegrass festival culture.”
• • •
Five years ago, Bob authored a provocative essay published by the Kettering Foundation. Titled “Reclaiming Public Education, Common Sense Approaches,” Bob blends his passion for education and community with real-life “common sense” examples into an engaging call to action. It’s a great read.
You can find the entire piece at https://www.kettering.org/catalog/product/reclaiming-public-education-co...
Here are a few excerpts.
“Federal and state bureaucracies will always insist upon holding educators ‘accountable;’ and those bureaucratic assessments will always be biased in favor of the top-down stuff we are seeing now. …The notion that the testing produces learning is a contrived illusion that serves the control purpose of the hierarchies.
“Communities can assess for themselves whether or not local education is effective by answering some questions: Are the children learning what we want them to learn? Are we as a community exemplifying good educational practices?
“We citizens need to do everything we can at the community level to encourage and support professional educators who are committed to making students active partners in learning.
“We should seek out and encourage broad-based communities of interests.”
“The real task at hand, the task that can take us to sustained reform, is for everybody to realize that local citizens can do things that make a crucial difference.”
“When citizens share in doing things that are important to their communities, they amplify democracy’s basic message—citizens matter.”
Even in noting his passing, that message resonates; his obituary ends with this: “In lieu of flowers, please consider either making a donation to The American Chestnut Foundation, www.afc.org, or have a conversation within your community about how to make the world a better place.”
Over the years, Bob has had thousands of important and meaningful conversations with hundreds of people. We’re all better for it.
I’m going to miss my conversations with Bob.
But I’ll remember them with fondness.
Tim L. Waltner is the former publisher of the Freeman Courier and reamains on staff as a contributing writer and photographer.