Originally Published: March 23, 2015 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - World War II double Bronze Star recipient John Cornelius is one of the largest private benefactors to the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System.
The 97-year-old's annual Pearl Harbor Day raffle fundraiser started almost a decade ago - in that time the raffle has supplied some $160,000 to the VA's clientele - is a payback to those he emphasizes sustained the nation through their military service.
NAVAHCS officials said the most recent raffle raised over $22,000.
"I am truly grateful for all of the work Mr. Cornelius has done to work with organizations and receiving donations to assist our veterans," said Mary Dillinger, the VA's public affairs officer. "Mr. Cornelius is a wonderful man and veteran."
Cornelius, 97, a Village of Oak Creek resident who served for five years in the U.S. Army as a rifle platoon leader in both North Africa and Italy, said he first visited the local VA a decade ago out of "curiosity."
The long-retired circulation manager for the Los Angeles Herald Review said he was heartbroken to see so many disabled veterans whose medical needs were such that they could not indulge in simple life pleasures others take for granted.
"It would make you cry to see some of those folks. And they're not going any place," said Cornelius, who today benefits from the VA's outpatient medical care.
He pledged then and there to find a way to bring those disabled veterans some comfort.
Longtime friend, golfing buddy and former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole - a World War II veteran who earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze star for his distinguished service during battle in Italy at the same time Cornelius was stationed there - suggested selling raffle tickets to buy special extras for the hospitalized veterans. That suggestion birthed the annual Disabled Veterans Benefit Raffle. Dole regularly donates $250 to the effort.
"Every dime we collect goes to veterans," Cornelius said of the effort that enables veterans to be given phone cards, movie tickets, magazines, greeting cards, and other treats that reach beyond medical care.
Ask Cornelius about his fundraising motive, he is quick to say it is all about the veterans.
As a war survivor, Cornelius knows the toll of combat; the sacrifice that comes from a military life.
"It makes me feel worthwhile," Cornelius said.
Of his own time overseas, Cornelius is less than effusive.
"There's not much to talk about," he said. "All we did was chase Germans."
He is much happier to talk about reaching out to veterans today.
Again, though, he deflects credit. He is clear he is not the one who writes the checks.
Cornelius said he is the backbone organizer who helps peddle the raffle tickets. It is the northern Arizona business community and citizenry who buy the tickets and donate some 60 prizes that range from golf weekends at prestigious courses to concert and sports tickets.
Others might argue he does a lot more. Each year, Cornelius pens handwritten letters on a yellow legal pad to dignitaries and celebrities; he nudges business owners throughout the county to be generous.
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald recently mailed a letter congratulating Cornelius for his continued commitment to veterans.
"You are indeed a great American hero," McDonald wrote in a February commendation letter. "Our nation is grateful to you and to your generation for defending freedom and democracy during a dark time in human history."
McDonald further thanked him for his continuing outreach to fellow veterans.
"You have touched so many through your service to our nation and your devotion to our community," McDonald said.
"... Your selfless generosity of time, energy and spirit is exceptionally inspiring."
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci