Philanthropist George Cornell met Harriet L. Wilkes through mutual friends and were married in 1936. Gary DuPont Licle described the two as an “adventurous couple”, because they enjoyed extravagant cruises and trips around the world.
The Cornells’ first lived in Manhattan when George began working at the Central Valley National Bank and the couple spent their winters in Florida. They particularly enjoyed spending time in south Flroida and they became active in the growing area.
Harriet also is known as Harriet W. Cornell in the press. Harriet and George were generous philanthropists in the greater Palm Beach area, in addition to Cornell University and other interests. She was a lover of art and animals and she and George loved Samoyeds, raising generations of show dogs. Although she suffered from polio as a child and was confined to a wheelchair during her later years, she remained a lively personality and used her resources to help others. Before her death at age 85, she and George were benefactors of the Morakami Gardens (Cornell Café and Cornell library), the Old School Square in Delray, the Cornell Dog Park, Palm Beach Zoo, Bethesda Memorial Hospital and Florida Atlantic University and the Rollins College Fine Arts Museum. The generous gifts include funds for a building and for student scholarships both here, on the Ithaca campus of Cornell University and at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. George Cornell died in 2003.
Obituaries—Cornell Chronicle 8.12.99
Harriet Wilkes Cornell, a philanthropist and ardent supporter of Cornell, died Aug. 2 at the age of 85 in her home in Delray Beach, Fla. In 1998 she and her husband, George, gave $10 million for student scholarships at Cornell. It was the single largest gift in the university's $200 million scholarship endowment campaign, which will end this October.
"George and Harriet have opened wide the doors of opportunity for generations of talented Cornell students," said President Hunter Rawlings when he announced the gift to university trustees and council members in October 1998. "We are deeply grateful and applaud their farsighted philanthropy."
In 1995 Harriet and George Cornell made a $2 million donation toward the renovation of Bailey Hall. In addition to better acoustics and new seats, improvements will include making the concert and lecture hall accessible to the handicapped. When the work is completed, the auditorium will be renamed in their honor.
Harriet Cornell grew up in Central Valley, N.Y., and first saw Bailey Hall as a young girl when she was recuperating from polio in Ithaca's Reconstruction Home. One of her strongest memories was being carried into the auditorium along with other polio patients when she was 14 for a showing of one of the first feature-length films with sound, "The Jazz Singer," starring Al Jolson.
Harriet Cornell and her husband also endowed the Edward Cornell Librarianship at the Cornell Law School library, naming it for George's father, a graduate of the Law School's first class in 1899 and the university's first law librarian. In addition they joined with George's sisters, Phoebe Maresi and Katherine Stainton, to endow a professorship at the Law School in honor of Edward Cornell.
Harriet and George Cornell were inspired to support the Derek Bryceson Scholarship in Human Ecology after meeting wildlife researcher Jane Goodall, the wife of the late Derek Bryceson, in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1986.
In September 1996, Harriet Cornell and her husband were honored for their ongoing generosity to the university when they were named foremost benefactors and their names were engraved in the wall adjacent to Uris Library. Foremost benefactors, or "builders" of Cornell, have made significant cumulative gifts to the university.
But despite her last name and her long history as a philanthropist, Harriet Cornell had only a circuitous connection to the university's founder. Her husband and Ezra Cornell were both descended from Thomas Cornell, who emigrated from England to the American colonies in 1638.
Harriet Cornell's philanthropy extended to her Florida community, where she and her husband made a gift to construct a cageless rain forest at the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park. The Cornells also were generous supporters of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens and the Old School Square, a historic site in Delray Beach, as well as benefactors of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.