Candice Easton stood on the porch of the Masonic Lodge in Flowery Branch, looking over the crowd — more than 100 strong — that showed up to honor her father, Pfc. Cornelius Cornelssen VIII, Saturday afternoon. She was worried no one would show up to his celebration of life, but those worries quickly went out the door, just like the guests were forced to do as the lodge filled up and the crowd could no longer fit inside.
As people from near and far gathered outside, most of whom didn’t know Cornelssen, Easton thanked them, shared memories of her father and recited one of her favorite poems.
“I have received dozens, now hundreds, of comforting messages,” Easton said with a smile on her face as she talked about how her original call to the Times on Christmas Eve ended up reaching further than she ever imagined. “Our stories are important to others. We are all connected. We all feel compassion. Your compassion, for me, will impact me for the rest of my life.”
The story of her father, who died Dec. 17 at age 93, impacted everyone in attendance.
He enlisted into the Army when he was 18 and fought during the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
One of those impacted by Cornelssen’s story was Don Hemphill, who drove almost 3 hours from Warner Robins to attend the gathering. He served in the Air Force from 1983 to 2011 and said he didn’t want to be one of those people that let busyness get in the way of something important.
“I’ve seen times when her fears were realized,” Hemphill said of Easton’s worry that no one would be there to honor her father. “We’re losing so many World War II-era veterans and so many people don’t understand the sacrifice and the things that they did. Why we are the way we are in the world today is because of those folks.”
Speaking directly to Cornelssen, as if he was standing in the crowd Saturday, retired Major General Marvin Back said he, along with everyone else, was there to honor him for his courage and devotion to duty.
“We’re here today to pay our respects to a superb American warrior. Rest in peace, comrad. You shall not be forgotten,” he said as the crowd began to applaud and shouts of “oorah” rang out.
Joseph Schrage, a Boy Scout from Buford, looked on and listened to everything being said and the reactions of those around him. He stood with his grandfather, Larry Lindgren, who was in town from Orange, Texas, for the holidays, and although Schrage couldn’t see over the adults that surrounded him, he knew the importance of what was happening.
“I thought this would be an incredible experience, helping honor a veteran,” Schrage said. “It’s really made me respect that man. It’s incredible what he did. That’s a lot of hard work that he must have put in, and how he kept positive through everything.”
Not only did Cornelssen keep positive after his time in the Army, he kept serving. That’s what a few of Easton’s friends, who are teachers, remembered most about him as they milled around outside the lodge, waiting to speak to Easton.
They said Cornelssen would come to White Oak Elementary School where they were teaching and read to the first-grade students. He wouldn’t just read the picture books, though, he would talk to the students, and make sure they understood what he was reading to them.
“I think it’s huge that he continued to serve his community into his 90s,” said Lori Plaskowsky of Suwanee. “I think that’s very powerful, and I think that speaks to the kind of person he was.”
As the crowd thinned out and the cars that lined the streets around the lodge began to drive away, Easton said she felt uplifted at the turnout. She said her father was “a really happy guy” who told a lot of jokes, so having a sad remembrance of him “just wouldn’t have been appropriate.”
She was proud the celebration of life Saturday ended up being exactly what she thought he would have wanted.
“I saw a lot of smiling faces,” Easton said. “I don’t like to trouble other people, I don’t like to ask other people for help. The one time I was vulnerable, strangers, people I didn’t even know reached out to comfort me and make it OK and that’s pretty amazing about life.”