Being a success didn't mean being flashy, extravagant

He wanted his family, his employees and even his beloved dachshunds to be happy.

Published July 22, 2007

TAMPA - It's not that Billy Cornwell didn't have money.

He was president of a successful business and brought in more than $200,000 each year.

But he wasn't comfortable being flashy. Modesty was ingrained in his marrow.

So Cornwell drove Chryslers or Plymouths, never a Cadillac. He wouldn't buy a fancy wristwatch.

When his health started to decline more than a year ago, his family practically had to drag him out of the simple Town 'N Country home that he lived in for more than 40 years.

Home, now, was Aston Gardens, an upscale senior community near northwest Hillsborough's Westchase.

And you know what? He liked it.

Cornwell would sit on the lanai and watch the sun set into the nature preserve behind his villa. He befriended a family of three deer, who would come close to the window and peer in at him.

Last week, he died in a bed on that lanai. He had lung and bladder cancer. He was 77.

Cornwell grew up during the Great Depression in a small town in Bartow County, Ga., just north of Atlanta.

Little Billy had prominent ears and shiny brown hair that swooped clear from one side to the other. His gap-toothed smile was as wide as the highway.

He was just a boy when his father died, forcing Cornwell to provide for his mother and baby brother. He delivered newspapers and worked at Woolworth's, always circulating his earnings back to the family.

As a young man, he moved to Atlanta. But during summers, he would return to Bartow County, where he began courting Helen, a statuesque brunet and family friend.

They married. In 1959, Cornwell's job took him to Tampa, where the family made a home.

He was a firm leader in his household, and didn't shy away from the old-fashioned discipline of his youth.

"My dad was of the old school," said his son, Mark Cornwell. "If you messed up, he'd give you a whopping."

But his soft spot was considerable. "You would cry, and he'd send you to your room, but he couldn't stand it," Mark said. "Within 30 minutes, he'd come in and hug you."

Cornwell adored his longhaired dachshunds, and bred them for several generations. One beloved dog, Little Red, died 15 years ago. "It was the first time I saw my dad cry," Mark said.

Cornwell was playful and affable, and lived to make others happy.

Every time Mark's girlfriend came around the house, he would break into an old Hank Williams song:

Hey, good looking. Whatcha got cooking? How's about cooking something up with me?

Later in life, he sang to his granddaughter:

I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.

In the 1970s, he decided to do better for his family.

At age 42, he co-founded Test Lab Inc., a Tampa company that his wife is president of today. He befriended his employees and hosted company parties for them.

Test Lab was a success. The Depression baby finally had money. He could buy his children cars on their 16th birthdays.

Once again, he could provide.

And just what does Cornwell's business do?

Well, before builders can use materials such as concrete, they must be tested to ensure they're strong enough. That's what Test Lab does.

Supplies a solid foundation.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8857.


Billy Cornwell

Born: June 24, 1930.

Died: July 15, 2007.

Survivors: Wife, Helen; children, Mark Cornwell and wife, Shannon, and Lori Giese and husband, Howard; and granddaughters Alexis, Stephanie and Brittany. Preceded in death by his parents and his brothers and sisters.