Dr. R. Orin Cornett Eulogy
Eulogy for Dr. CornettBy Sarina Roffé
President, National Cued Speech Association
December 30, 2002
Great men stand out in history because the are visionaries. Robert F. Kennedy, a man of vision, said "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" Of course, Kennedy was talking in the 60s and he was referring to the civil rights movement.
Like Kennedy, Dr. Cornett was a great man, and a man of vision. His vision was that deaf children be able to read as well as hearing children do so that they can achieve the same dreams and aspirations in their lives.
Dr. Cornett didn't understand why deaf children weren't reading as well as hearing children were. So Dr. Cornett said ‘why?’ to deaf educators. And in figuring out the ‘why not?’ of the literacy problems that pervade deaf education, Dr. Cornett formulated a vision that deaf children would read as well as hearing children do.
The combination of his humanity, combined with his mother’s influence and his mathematical mind worked together to help him resolve the problem, how to break the barrier to deafness that prevented deaf children from learning and accessing spoken language to the point where they couldn't read well enough to enjoy it. In the process, he performed a miracle. He invented Cued Speech, a miracle that has affected tens of thousands of lives in the past 37 years all over the globe as clearly as the invention of Braille affected blind people.
The word miracle is generally reserved for acts of God - to acts such as the parting of the Red Sea so the Hebrew slaves fleeing the wrath of the Egyptian Pharoah could escape with Moses as their leader. I say to you, the invention of Cued Speech was nothing short of a miracle. Ask any family who used Cued Speech anywhere in the world and they will say that the introduction and continued use of Cued Speech allowed their deaf children to achieve as hearing children do.
Ask Judy Weiss, the mother of Louis, who said “For our family, the name “Dr. Cornett” is synonymous with the word “miracle.” Dr. Cornett and his ingenious invention “Cued Speech” were and still are the answer to our families’ prayers. Twenty-three years ago, our 10-month-old son became deaf from meningitis and deaf educators told us that he would never be able to do as well as his hearing brother academically and we needed to lower our expectations of his abilities. Like many other families with deaf children who decided to use Dr. Cornett’s wonderful system, our deaf child excelled and enjoyed languages - French, Spanish and, of course, English. Dr. Cornett continued to personally follow our son’s progress and counseled our different concerns as they arose. Our son went on to graduate from Arizona State University and is married and working in Las Vegas. We will be forever grateful to this wonderful man and his incredible gift to our family.
Marie-Claire and Bruno Zimmerman of Geneva, Switzerland wrote me an email saying “Our deaf son Adrien just turned 14; he speaks French well, and English and German passably. He has an interest and even a passion for languages he would certainly never have developed without the tool invented by Dr Cornett.”
From Sandy Mosetick, mother of Rachel in Chicago, Ill. “Dr. Cornett's vision for what our deaf children are capable of and his dedication to making it a reality changed the course of my daughter's life in ways that can only be called a miracle.”
These are but a few of the scores of stories of how Dr. Cornett touched us. My own son Simon was introduced to Cued Speech when he was 3 ½. Although he was diagnosed early, he was already two years language delayed. I met Dr. Cornett and he gave me hope for myson's future, a hope that I desperately needed and that I thought impossible. During the next two years, I cued and I watched the miracle of language unfold in my child. I watched the wheels spin in his mind as he learned about all the things preschoolers learn - animals, numbers, colors, textures, feelings, foods and people. I watched him put sentences together. By 5 ½, Simon had the language of a six year old and in the process, I saw the miracle happening, a miracle that no one would have believed could happen.
Simon, Rachel, Adrien and Louis and all the deaf cuers around the globe are examples of the miracle that happened in our lives. We as the recipients of the miracle, are forever thankful for Dr. Cornett but I am thankful to God for Dr. Cornett.
To the family of R. Orin Cornett, to the Cued Speech community, to friends and relatives, I am sure it is no surprise to hear that Dr. Cornett was an exceptional person. He was full of humor, yet he had humility. He was a taskmaster, yet he motivated us to achieve higher standards. He was a workaholic, never taking vacations, yet his work was full of accomplishment and it filled him with pride.
It could not have been easy for his wife Lorene, whom many of us got to know well. She was always there for him, and at a moment’s notice would be serving dinner to 6 or 8 surprise guests. Dr. Cornett was a genius, yet he always wanted to learn more. He counseled an endless number of parents. He was always available, always accessible, yet he always wanted to learn from us. He thrived on debate, and there were many arguments in those early years about the applications of Cueing.
In the words of Barbara LeBlanc of Louisiana, “No new idea was ever rejected or discouraged by Dr. Cornett. He had the foresight to believe in people and to respect and appreciate new ideas from people who could make a difference. Dr. Cornett's presence will be missed, but his imprint on deaf education and the lives of the people he touched will forever be so much better.”
He was open minded and easy to talk to, and he made people feel worthwhile, like they had potential. It is no coincidence that the women who worked for him at Gallaudet each went on to obtain a degree in higher education. He had high expectations of everyone around him, yet it was those expectations that helped the deaf cueing children to achieve, that pushed the parents. He demanded that each of his children earn a Ph.D., no small achievement for the average person, but an accomplishment expected of each of you as if it was as easy as brushing your teeth.
At a Jewish Passover Seder, we sing a song called Dayenu, which is the Hebrew word for “enough!” Of course, we are singing about the plagues on Egypt as Moses tried to free the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptian Pharoah. One would have thought that inventing Cued Speech was ‘Dayenu’ but it was not enough to fulfill Dr. Cornett’s vision.
Once he developed the system, he had to sell it to parents and to the world of deaf educators. He traveled the world and wrote papers. His ability to explain his vision and to get people to use it was crucial to its success. Like a baby that needs a mother’s nurturing, Dr. Cornett nursed his baby through all the typical growing aches and pains a child has, through adolescence until it became an adult. And even then, it was not ‘Dayenu.’
He retired from Gallaudet and even when he was in ill health Dr. Cornett still came to cue camps and to NCSA board meetings and he still counseled parents about using Cued Speech. In seeing the results of his life’s work and the effect it had on the quality of life for deaf people who used it, I think Dr. Cornett was gratified that his work had reached higher goals than he initially predicted. Dr. Cornett was gratified to see Cued Speech used all over the world and to see the multitude of prelingually profoundly deaf children grow into successful, independent adults with higher level thinking skills who became full members of both the hearing and deaf culture communities.
To Robert, Stan and Linda, Dr. Cornett’s children, and to his grandchildren, Jane, Linda and Emily, each of us here today thanks you for sharing Dr. Cornett with us. You made a sacrifice, albeit unknowingly, in sharing your father with the world. It could not have been easy to watch your father bounce all over the world talking about Cued Speech. But it is a sacrifice that we in the Cued Speech community will be forever grateful for.
In the words of Deborah and David Libby, parents of Joshua, Dr. Cornett “leaves the world a better place! My son’s accomplishments and the profound joy we have experienced as a family happened because a man saw a need, cared enough to find a solution and devoted the better part of his life helping to make young people's potentials bloom and grow.”
Like Kennedy, Dr. Cornett had a vision, but instead of questioning, he acted. It is a testament to his legacy that so many deaf adult cuers are here today. The sages say that he who saves a person saves a generation. While Dr. Cornett did not physically save a life, he is a true hero because with Cued Speech, Dr. Cornett planted the seeds for future generations of deaf children. The profound impact Dr. Cornett had on the world because of the miracle he developed and nurtured - Cued Speech - can never be matched.