n Tom and Marvel Cornish volunteer to their heart’s content
by Britt Aamodt
They are the couple that holds hands.
For Tom and Marvel Cornish, this is their second marriage. After they both lost spouses, they met through their sons, and now they walk hand in hand around Elk River, on errands and on jobs, joking with friends and teasing each other.
Tom and Marvel volunteer more days a week than they don’t, week after week. And get this: They’re 89. (Actually, Marvel will turn 89 in a month.)
They’re proof that life doesn’t end at retirement. It just gets more interesting.
Marvel was born in 1924 in Southern Minnesota. When the Depression hit, her father found a cart and sold hamburgers in downtown Rochester.
“My childhood was tough,” Marvel said. “We were poor.”
Later on, things eased up when her dad got a steady job selling windows and her mom found work sewing awnings.
In 1947, Marvel married Benjamin, a veteran of World War II, and would spend nearly 50 years with him. He worked for grocery store chains, so the family of seven always seemed to be on the move, going where the jobs were.
They had a stall at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market for a long time.
“All our kids worked there and paid their way through college,” she said.
Tom Cornish grew up on the other side of the Great Lakes, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the snow stacked to 3 feet and horses pulled enormous rollers to pack down the road snow.
Also born in 1924, he served in the Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he moved to Minneapolis and found work in a sheet metal shop.
“My boss was a smart guy,” Tom said. “He had an eighth-grade education, but he was self-educated.”
His boss was also the one who introduced him to his first wife.
“He says, ‘Let’s double date.’ He went out with Lorraine and I went with some other gal. It wasn’t long before we switched,” said Tom, who married Lorraine in 1947 and had five kids with her.
When he met Marvel in 1996, both had been widowed. Their sons invited them to a dinner party.
“We knew our kids were trying to set us up,” Marvel said.
And it was a lucky thing, because they hit it off. But after that night, Marvel didn’t hear from Tom for months.
“I thought that’s OK. I like living alone. I’ve got a nice apartment,” she said.
It turned out Tom had been in California helping a sister who had also lost a spouse. When he got back to Minnesota, he rang Marvel up and the couple married in August.
Charlotte Strei at Sherburne County’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, is largely responsible for the couple’s busy schedule.
She got them their monthly gigs at the Chamber and Government Center. She’s sent them to Guardian Angels and on a variety of one-day assignments.
Interestingly enough, husband and wife both knit.
Marvel knits washcloths for an extended network. Tom gets up at 5:30 a.m. and starts knitting on one of several circular looms. He makes winter hats for the food shelf and for newborns. Hats stack on the back of their sofa. They collect in bags in the basement. Last year, he knit more than 300 hats for charity.
In the Cornish family, Tuesdays are devoted to the Elk River Library. They volunteer in the back room, sorting books.
“They get along so well,” said librarian Terry Pfleghaar. “They’re so much fun to watch because they tease and banter with each other.”
The Cornishes’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. They have a stack of congratulatory certificates. They’ve been recognized by Guardian Angels and Elk River Parks and Recreation.
“It’s people like them who inspire me,” said Pfleghaar. At 89, “they’re not stopping. They just give, give, give.”
The Cornishes are the couple that volunteers, and at the end of a job, they say their goodbyes and walk off hand in hand.
“We’re still going and doing,” Marvel said. “Oh, it’s so much fun.”