Mayor Cornelious’ life experiences shape leadership
Lifestyle & Culture Editor
He has come a long way from the farm in what is now known as Helena-West Helena, Arkansas. Curtis J. Cornelious has not strayed from the values his upbringing instilled and carries them into his new role as mayor of the Town of Little Elm, Texas.
“My dad always farmed, my mom, always a full-time nurse, so we had the best of both worlds,” Cornelious said. “We were either out helping on the farm, or we were out learning something about helping people healthcare wise.”
Next to the youngest of eight children, which he laughed as he fondly invoked a well-known country term as being the “knee baby,” Cornelious has a high regard for his father and mother and their sense of care.
“Both of our parents were just heartfelt and that’s how they raised us to be,” he said.
Growing up, Cornelious shared that they didn’t have a lot, yet their home was often a shelter for others in need.
“It’s a three bed, one bath house on the hill. The water ran slow, and at any given time, we always had a cousin from each family living with us,” Cornelious said. “It was nothing to have the 10 of us plus four or five others, but it was a family thing.”
He emphasized that with hard work, they had fun. The family togetherness with the minimum yielded lessons he’ll never forget in foreseeing maximum rewards.
“What they taught us is, whatever you have, appreciate it; and just because you see others with it, it does not mean you don’t have what you deserve,” Cornelious said. “Use that to drive you to get what you want.”
And drive, he did.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) institution, graduate who holds double degrees in chemistry and agriculture moved from Arkansas to Carrollton, Texas.
At that time, he was a chemist with the world’s largest chemical company, BASF. A friend living in The Colony knew that Cornelious and his wife, Charlet, were looking to purchase a home and suggested they check out his city.
“We were literally driving trying to find The Colony and shot straight through it and found Little Elm, Texas,” Cornelious shared with a huge smile.
“Being from Arkansas, country boy, as soon as we hit Little Elm I saw all these cows on the side of the road. So, I told my wife, ‘Let’s just drive through and look at some houses since we’re out here.’”
They’ve lived in Little Elm since 2004.
Cornelious’ personal drive started long before. He recalled being student council president in eighth grade, and in high school, president of his class, FFA and the debate club. He also received best-all-around honors in sports. He credits his parents for his success and perspective.
“My mom and dad always made sure I was involved,” Cornelious said. “They just poured into me. So even if things didn’t look a certain way, it didn’t tell me who I was.”
For ages, in society, being a teenage parent has often drawn certain looks and even stares.
Cornelious handled that aspect of his life with a strong sense of commitment, having a daughter born when he was 17.
“It was challenging because I didn’t know, but I had my dad there to tell me, ‘Step up, step up.’ And that’s what I did,” Cornelious said. “I knew that she deserved the best. I knew she deserved to have not only a dad, but a father.”
Born premature, Cornelious shared that his daughter Stephanie was about the size of his hand and that he didn’t even hold her until she was around four or five months old. Presently, standing a little over five feet tall, she dotes on her father who calls her his “little sawed-off shotgun” and “Dad’s girl.”
“My dad has raised so many kids, my mom has poured into so many kids; who am I to just walk away from a responsibility?” Cornelious asked. “It was never even a second thought for me.”
Cornelious’ leadership lesson from the teen parent experience?
“You don’t leave anyone behind,” he said. “You don’t leave that void for someone to have to try and process themselves when you have the leadership abilities to help.”
The lessons have been transferable, and seemingly always connected in some way. In addition to his parents, Cornelious credits several Black men who molded his leadership, including high school agriculture teacher Gale Thrower of whom he shared, “You wouldn’t pass his class unless you could beat him tying a tie.”
He added, “He taught you how to balance a checkbook. He taught you everything about money.”
Cornelious also mentioned college mentor Dr. Owen Porter who constantly reminded him, “Curtis you can do it. You can be all you can be.”
“There’s just nothing like a strong man reaching back to pick you up and guide you and hold you accountable,” Cornelious said. “It’s all about being held accountable.”
The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Spring 1998 initiate and former Gamma Delta chapter president found his love for brotherhood and the love of his life on the UAPB campus. Although his mentor and chemistry professor Dr. Lipman gave a stern warning about being late to class, he allowed Cornelious a chance to chase his destiny.
“He (Lipman) used to call me cornbread because of my last name and said, ‘Cornbread, you be late to my class one more time, I’m flunking you.'”
A side-by-side encounter in the parking lot had him rushing off to be on time, yet determined to track down the mystery woman who caught his eye.
“I pulled into the parking space right beside her. She was parked there. I’d never seen her a day in my life,” Cornelious recalled. “I looked over, I didn’t know if she had legs, she was sitting in that truck, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
Cornelious says he “kind of made eye contact with her and ran to class.” Pleading his case, Lipman allowed him to return to the parking lot, however, Charlet was gone. His determination led him to put out an “APB” at “UAPB” with full descriptions. It turned out that his fraternity brother, Giles Willis, immediately knew who he was describing; had previously worked with her and connected the two.
“We’re still close and I just thank God for Giles every day for bringing me the wind beneath my wings,” Cornelious said. “I could not be who I am without her.”
Both in their last semester of college, with Charlet focused on graduating school and moving on, she couldn’t help but notice his heart from the very start. His actions at a cookout with his fraternity brothers sparked her interest.
“I’ve never met a guy, he was like, ‘Oh no, let me fix your plate,’ before anybody else ate anything,” Charlet said. “And that really sealed the deal. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never experienced this.'”
“We were pretty young then and for him to do that in front of his boys, I thought that was, ‘Oh yeah, he can get my number now.’ He has a servant’s heart. He was willing to serve my plate then and it continued. He has never wavered and has always been the sweet guy that he is.”
At first, Charlet was hesitant about dating someone with a child and being so young. She shared that Cornelious’ daughter was almost five years old at the time, and feels she and Stephanie bonded during a trip to the playground. She added, “To see how he was with her melted my heart.”
“You only get a few good women, and God blessed me with one that would push me to be successful, and show me who I am as a husband, as a dad, as a friend.” Cornelious said. “I owe it all to her. I’m not scared to tell nobody. She’s my everything. She’s my Michelle to my Barack.”
The Cornelious’ have been married for 19 years and have sons Christian and Collyn from their union. Charlet hails from Dumas, Arkansas, where her father spent 32 years in politics. She has been a driving force in their marriage, even the catalyst behind Curtis’ foray into Little Elm politics that began with a council seat.
“In 2009 and years before, you knew whose seat was available on your water bill,” Cornelious said. “So we got the water bill in; my wife was like, ‘There’s an open seat’ and I was like, ‘You should go for it, I’ll support you, you go for it.’ She was like, ‘Nah, I’m talking about you.’”
Cornelious says he “let her talk him into” running and he’s been elected to and serving on the Town Council ever since in multiple terms as a council member, including five times as mayor pro tem. There was however a break from 2015-2017 after an unsuccessful bid for mayor which taught him many things.
“What I learned is I wasn’t ready, but I learned I needed to get ready and God showed me how,” Cornelious said. “He (God) said, ‘Just build your resume, your character has always been clean, your integrity has always been there. Just do the work.’ So in 2015, I learned I needed to do the work.”
Cornelious had served in many roles prior to the first run. He was very active in the community, coached youth sports teams, etc. Doing the work in the meantime was met with mean-spirited opposition.
“When I lost, they booted me off every board, they literally took prayer off of the agenda, because these are things I always interacted with…I did the prayer,” Cornelious said. “It was about, ‘He lost, let’s make him disappear.’ My last post when I lost, my hashtag was, ‘I’ll be back’ and I told them, ‘I meant that,’ and when I come back, I’m coming back twice as strong.”
And come back strong he did.
There’s strength in his DNA. Cornelious was contacted in 2010 by the organization Be the Match and told that he was a potential bone marrow match that could save someone’s life. He had been tested nearly a decade earlier for a cousin who was diagnosed with and ultimately lost their battle with leukemia. Having forgotten he was still in the registry, Cornelious was all-in to help.
“I went in, got the swab and everything. Come to find out, I was like a 99 percent match,” Cornelious said. “Again, God said, ‘Here you go.’ I made the decision, talked to my family, talked to my wife, even though I already had it made up in my mind, if I can help, I’m helping.”
Cornelious has since met his bone marrow recipient, Tina Ford, whom he was originally told lived in Virginia, which he assumes was protocol due to privacy reasons. She actually lives in Houston, and their families have been connected since they met in 2011. He recalled their emotional meeting and confirmation of their intrinsic bond.
“She told me, ‘I guarantee you I can tell you what your favorite foods are.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Reese’s peanut butter cups and fried chicken wings.’ She said, ‘Two things I hated all my life’ and she said, ‘Now, I can’t pass ‘em.’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah you definitely got my DNA!’”
Life is precious. Cornelious has graciously and generously given the ultimate. He’s dealt with recent personal losses as well. For his family, politics and the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately did mix.
“In October/November, both my parents tested positive for COVID. My mom didn’t have any major symptoms, but my dad, it just… it took him down.” Cornelious said. “And then, it was pneumonia on top of that, and then it just, he never bounced back.”
He shared that his father knew of his plan to once again go for his goal.
“I said, ‘Pops, I’ll do it.’ I said, ‘I’m running for mayor again.’ He said, ‘Son, go get it.’”
His father passed away a week-and-a-half after he jumped into the race.
“That was hard, but every step of the way, he was right there,” Cornelious said. “And he always said, ‘Son, I taught you, do what’s right and right will always come to you.’”
The voice Cornelious heard from every day, multiple times a day for so many years was silenced, however, he found the lesson that spoke loudly through it all.
“It was hard not being able to talk to him, but in a way, God weaned me away from being able to talk to him every day,” Cornelious said.
Facing the reality of losing one of your biggest influences was challenging for Cornelious, however, he channeled his energy into the future of the city he has been elected to lead.
“I still haven’t processed his death and it still feels like he’s right here, and it’s just… it’s a lot,” he said. “One day I will process it, who knows what that will look like, but right now, I’m just living in the fact that he built a man; and it’s my job to build men, and not just my children.”
The Cornelious family misses another champion as well.
“We also lost my mother-in-law in August, and she was another, just powerful person. I mean, prayer warrior, ‘Brother Curtis, let’s go get it done,’” Cornelious said. “She was a planner, so, with her on one shoulder and my dad on another shoulder, I couldn’t let them down.”
Cornelious and his family ran the race with level heads, keeping in mind the lessons they had learned from the previous effort. With racial tensions higher than before, things were a little different and his family had to navigate their reactions.
“It’s tougher on them because, even though they support it, I chose to do it.,” Cornelious said regarding his family watching his name get attacked.
“My dad always said, ‘Your name is all you got.’ For them to have to watch that and not respond, and my wife, she wants to respond, but I’m saying, ‘Don’t. Don’t respond.’ Because once this election is over, we’ll have the respect of the people, however it plays out.”
In this election cycle, it appeared to be more than typical politics.
“So it got really, really ugly this time. It got really ugly, but we’ve seen it, so when they start sending it, trying to divide it and point it out that I’m a Black man and cover it up by political affiliation, when in actuality, you just wanted to say, ‘This is a Black man,’ we were able to process it and take it because we’ve seen it,” Cornelious said. “I didn’t let it get in my spirit, and they learned not to.”
Election Day was filled with the love of supporters and relatives, including the delegation from Arkansas and others who traveled to be present when results rolled in.
“They came Election Day and it was so emotional to have all of them here,” Cornelious shared as he fought back tears. “I still get choked up. It’s nothing like family, and to know they’re here, for better or worse, regardless how it turned out, they were right here and it was just… Again, I told myself, ‘I can’t lose, I can’t lose.’
Not only my parents here (mother and father-in-law), not only my dad passing away, not only my mother- in-law passing away, Election Day was my wife’s birthday! So, I’m telling myself, ‘No pressure.’”
“I’m stressing out, but at the same time, God is telling me, ‘I got you. I got you. You deserve it. You’ve been faithful, and I’ll give you this win because I know you’re the right person for it,’” Cornelious shared with intense emotion. “And it’s not about politics. This is about building people up. This is about building a community. We set budgets, we do ordinances, that will happen. But my job is to unify a community. I unify the community, and we all go out and help unify people, and that’s servant leadership; and that’s what it’s all about.”
Cornelious was victorious this time around, winning 53.84 percent of the 3,709 votes cast in the June 5, 2021 runoff election against opponent Ken Eaken.
He shared that having his mother and his father-in-law present “was like I had all four.” He said he also felt his father’s spirit.
“I’m so proud to finish this race and knowing that he’s right there… right there with me,” Cornelious said.
With Little Elm being a town that hugs more than 66 miles of the shoreline of Lake Lewisville, and having grown from over 3600 residents in 2000 to now over 53,000, many of these Denton county constituents wonder about a categorical shift that deals in semantics.
“It comes up probably every year,” Cornelious said of the question asked “When will we say we’re a city?”
The area is officially the Town of Little Elm, not “City of.” The mayor and council members serve on the Town Council, not “City Council.”
Cornelious verified that there is no difference between the two, it’s just whatever is decided by those who lead.
When asked about his personal preference, he responded “I could really care less. I guess it’s somewhat automatic to say ‘City Council’ or ‘City of,’ but I still like to see ‘Town of Little Elm.’”
So for now, Town of Little Elm it is! The senior engineer at Raytheon is grateful for the support of his employer and upper management, sharing that he loves his job and will continue in his role there while serving as mayor. Arriving at work the week following the Saturday, June 5th election had a new feel, however, Cornelious is adamant about keeping things the same.
“I got back to the office Tuesday, now it’s, ‘How can I help you Mr. Mayor?’ I was like, ‘Get out of here. I’m still Curtis!’”
Curtis J. Cornelious was sworn in as the first African American Mayor of the Town of Little Elm, Texas on June 15, 2021. The council chambers and foyer was packed to witness the historic occasion.
Soon after Cornelious was sworn in, his family had a ceremony of their own in which the children placed a crown upon their mother’s head. The crowd cheered and someone yelled out “First Lady.”
Present at the swearing-in ceremony was James A. McClinton, also from Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, who was elected as the first African American Mayor of Topeka, Kansas.
“To see both of us grow up in West Helena and then move away and make history in other places, it just touches my heart to see him do this,” McClinton said. “I’m so proud of him.”
Cornelious’ eldest son, Christian Cornelious, felt good about his father’s second attempt at running for mayor.
“This time, the whole dynamic, everything around it is different,” Christian said. “And then the things that led up to the election, we just knew, we had a feeling that he was going to pull this one off.”
Cornelious’ daughter, Stephanie Stevenson was all smiles as she watched the crowd that came out to support her dad.
“I am very proud of my dad. This has been a long journey,” Stevenson said. “He ran a few years ago and wasn’t successful but this year, it all worked out in his favor.”
Collyn Cornelious, the youngest of the family, shared the biggest lesson he’s learned from his dad in aspirations beyond what one might physically see.
“Dream big. You can do anything you dream of. You really can,” Collyn said. “Because he came from West Helena, Arkansas, a really small town that looks abandoned almost, if he didn’t have the vision or be able to dream far enough to see himself as a mayor at some point, then he wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Cornelious’ children echoed lessons he learned, proving that they truly transcend generations.
“Don’t give up. It can be done,” Cornelious said. “A setback is just setting you up for what you really deserve.”
The foundations of being an Alpha man have come to fruition for Cornelious.
“When I decided to run, you would see my fraternity brothers [say], ‘There goes an Alpha man,’ and that means a lot because our teachings was to be a leader,” Cornelious said. “Our teachings was to always stand out. When others won’t step up, it’s your job. ‘Go be an Alpha man.’ And so, to no surprise, I’m an Alpha man, and I’m the mayor of a city.”
Or should he have said, “Town?”
Congratulations Mayor Curtis J. Cornelious!