Executive Assistant (retired), Governor Gaylord Nelson; Member, 1999 Gaylord Nelson Environmental Endowment Steering Committee; Nelson Institute donor and volunteer
One only need to spend a few minutes talking with Pat Cornwell and you quickly learn the admiration and respect that she had for former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. Her chance meeting in the early 1950s shaped her career path, life, and connection to the Nelson Institute in ways she would never imagine.
Hailing from Casey, Iowa, a small town due west of Des Moines, Pat and her husband Dan relocated to Madison, Wis., in the early 1950s as Dan accepted a position at UW-Madison. Shortly after her arrival to Madison, Pat began working at the Wisconsin State Journal as secretary to Editor Roy Matson. She vividly recounts her initial interactions with state Senator Nelson as he would stop by every couple of months to visit with the editor. Although the paper at that time generally endorsed the Republican Party, “He was good with both parties,” said Cornwell, adding, “It was also a time when state senators had time to wander around.”
When Cornwell learned that Nelson set his sights on being Wisconsin’s next governor, she took it upon herself to solicit nominations from her State Journal colleagues — eventually obtaining the required signatures. What was then-Senator Nelson’s reaction? He expressed to her, “You are a ‘reckless girl’ to take my nomination papers around to the stronghold of conservatism,” Cornwell remarked with a laugh.
Shortly after Gaylord Nelson was elected governor, she recollected reading a State Journal story noting the Republican people were “going to leave” and that he would be hiring staff. That was the spark she needed to see if she could land a job with the new administration.
Reciting aloud from a copy of her letter dated November 17, 1958, Cornwell is still proud of the results of her bold effort to write directly to the governor-elect and receive a reply. She was directed to see Joe Nusbaum, financial advisor. She vividly recalls getting “dressed up” to venture to the Capitol to see Nusbaum and upon arrival surprised to find him in an out of the way, tiny, dusty office piled high with papers.
“Hi, I’m Pat Cornwell and I wrote the letter,” Cornwell announced. Peering from behind the desk, Nusbaum replied that he remembered the letter and quipped, “Let’s see if I can find it.” Followed quickly by, “Oh, forget it. Gaylord said to hire you.” Cornwell beamed as she recalled the memory. “That pleased me greatly,” she said.
Thus began Cornwell’s role as the executive assistant to Governor Gaylord Nelson. Cornwell was positioned outside of his office and loved being at the heart of the action. “It was a different time,” Cornwell said, noting, “There were no security guards; Gaylord drove his own car to work; I had eight phone lines and answered all of them — I had a lot of fun in that position.”
Whenever someone wanted to see any of the governor’s staff, Cornwell was where they started. With the opportunity to meet all kinds of people came the challenge to monitor those who had access to the governor. From former senators who thought they could go right in to dignitaries or reporters, Mrs. Cornwell screened visitors and rang through to Esther Kaplan, Gaylord Nelson’s secretary.
In addition to greeting visitors and managing the phone, she typed letters, press releases, and reviewed documents. One task that she was not fond of was a page-by-page review and marking of lengthy contracts indicating where a signature was required. Cornwell always feared she would miss marking a spot, but never did.
Another common occurrence was reporters hanging around the office waiting for press releases. One particular occasion gives new meaning to “hot off the press” as Cornwell found herself typing in real-time, struggling to get eleven carbon copies into her typewriter as Bill Fairfield, press secretary to Gaylord Nelson, brought revisions.
Surrounded by about eight reporters, each time Fairfield came out of the office, the reporters would rise in unison. After multiple “jack-in-the-box” moments and each time crowding her desk and comfort zone, Cornwell exclaimed, “Hey you guys, get away from here, you’re making me nervous, and I don’t want to make mistakes with all of these carbons,” adding emphatically, “Go somewhere else, until I finish this!” Cornwell does not recollect the topic of the release that day but based on the reporters’ interest she knew it was important.
The serious tenor of a governor’s office was balanced by Nelson’s sense of humor. “He had people laughing all the time,” Cornwell said. He was quick with one-liners. His office staff and appointees were all very nice people to work with. Cornwell did not have the opportunity to interact with the Nelson children, but participated in staff gatherings hosted by Gaylord’s wife, Carrie Lee, and received the family Christmas card.
Cornwell remained in her executive assistant role for Gaylord’s tenure as governor. When Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate, he invited Cornwell to accompany him to Washington D.C., but she declined. Cornwell hated to see him leave but was so proud that he was elected to the Senate. “I knew he’d do wonderful things there,” Cornwell said. While she did not keep in direct contact with Senator Nelson, she maintained a connection through Ed Bailey, his chief of staff, with whom she exchanged frequent letters.
With Senator Nelson’s departure, Cornwell’s career was at a crossroads. Although John Reynolds, the newly elected governor, offered her a position, she opted to take some time off. When she returned to the workforce, she held a variety of roles including a position with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Land Tenure Center (LTC).
Established in 1962 on the UW-Madison campus to study and address land, poverty and environmental issues in developing countries, Cornwell found the mission aligned with that of her prior boss, Gaylord Nelson. She also had the familiarity of working with a former colleague, Judy Schwenn, who also a member of Nelson’s staff. In subsequent years, Cornwell held positions as secretary to Attorney General Bronson LaFollette, Executive Assistant to Assembly Speaker Norman Anderson, and worked in the pardons office of Governor Tony Earl.
The six degrees of Governor Nelson provided a framework of like-minded people and opportunities for her to contribute to an area that she was committed to — the environment. That network resulted in her friend Bud Jordahl asking her to serve on a committee to raise two million dollars to create a Gaylord Nelson Chair in Integrated Environmental Studies. Cornwell was up for the challenge and served alongside a “Who’s Who” of environmental pioneers, academicians, local and state leaders with Jordahl as State Chair and Morris Udahl the honorary national chair.
In addition to her own generous donation, Cornwell had no trouble soliciting friends for contributions. She unapologetically again crossed political party affiliations to invite individuals to join her in supporting this endeavor, which enjoyed success in creating the Nelson Chair along with funds for the Gaylord Nelson Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowship.
Cornwell pauses and reflects as she works her way through stacks of file folders with clippings and photos she has accumulated over the decades. She readily offers up the year, an anecdote, or the significance. Several clippings about a portrait of Gaylord Nelson are worthy of further explanation. A photograph of Nelson by Dodgeville photographer Ed Obma had been used to create an oil painting. Cornwell remembered the portrait and, at her request, her friend Obma loaned it to Speaker Norman Anderson for his office.
By the time Anderson left the speakership, Obma had died and his family was not interested in the portrait. Cornwell took possession of the painting and through her own word-of-mouth efforts the artwork eventually graced several State Capitol offices including that of Governor Tony Earl, Jim Doyle, as attorney general then governor, to the current office of Mark Miller.
Along the way, Cornwell donated the painting to the Wisconsin Historical Society. As the painting had deteriorated over time, the State Historical Society museum curator coordinated with a Chicago-based art conservator to restore the portrait free of charge except for the cost of materials, which was covered by Cornwell and her husband, Professor Emeritus Dan Cornwell.
Through an agreement with the Wisconsin State Historical Society, the portrait is loaned to the Nelson Institute for its annual Earth Day conference. Cornwell takes pride that the portrait is literally center stage at the conference. “It’s an opportunity to honor yet educate those who may not know the individual behind the environmental movement,” said Cornwell.
When asked what her connection to the Nelson Institute is, Cornwell offers, “donor, Earth Day, friend, and other things.” It is those things and so much more. What started as a bold letter from then secretary to the editor of the Republican-leaning Wisconsin State Journal requesting a position in the newly-elected governor’s office became the foundation for a lifelong connection to the namesake behind the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She was so fond of him. “He was so personable. Everyone liked Gaylord. It’s no wonder he was voted the most favorite U.S. senator in D.C.”