The Last WordOct 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Cornelius O'Donnell
Cornelius O’Donnell Jr. died September 6, 2021. [Date added by editor, as the actual timing of his demise took Neal by surprise, as it does for most.] He was an avowed “home cook” whose great joy in his middle years was passing along workable recipes, cooking tips and techniques. He learned these things through an extensive cookbook collection, many signed by the authors who were his friends, and by following his favorites on their TV cooking programs. “No competition or reality shows for me. I want to learn techniques, short cuts, and how to cook unusual ingredients,” he said.
Neal (old high school friends called him Cornie) was born in May 1935 in Manhattan, the firstborn son of Cornelius Sr. and Genevieve (McCloskey). His brother, the late Robert O’Donnell, was born fifteen months later. The family moved to Queens Village on Long Island and in the middle of the Second World War years the family moved to Syracuse where where, eight years later, his brother Arthur (now living in Waxhaw, North Carolina with spouse Tricia) was born, and two years later his sister, Nancy (now deceased) joined the family. In 1949 the O’Donnells moved to Delmar, an Albany suburb. Neal graduated from Vincentian Institute (1953) and then Siena College (1957), where he was vice president of the student senate in his senior year and a columnist for the college newspaper.
He was an ROTC cadet and, after receiving his commission and going on active duty, ultimately achieved the rank of first lieutenant while serving in peacetime Korea, 1958-1959. He was adjutant and personnel officer for a battle group. He also managed the officer’s club. He and six fellow artillery officers maintained their friendship and boasted several reunions, including one Neal hosted in Corning.
Neal worked in advertising for the leading Albany advertising agency for a time and then graduated with an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, where he was elected to the business school honor society Sigma Beta Sigma.
A viewing in Philadelphia of the television program Opening Night at Lincoln Center, sponsored by Corning, Inc. led him to an interview with the company and he began in the advertising department of technical products in 1963, subsequently transferring to consumer products where he remained for the rest of his career. While there, he became advertising manager for Corning appliances and enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the famed James Beard, who endorsed the appliances in TV and magazine ads.
As the eldest child, Neal learned to cook helping his mother. His radish roses and celery brushes were legendary! He continued cooking for friends in Corning, and having folks for dinner created a word of mouth. He soon found himself as spokesperson for Corning’s cookware. As such he was sent all over the U.S. and to many parts of the world: Australia, the Philippines, Canada, England, and, most frequently, Japan. In all these places he appeared on television and in person in department stores demonstrating the wares.
As manager of creative services, he became the writer of a column promoting Corning products that appeared in national magazines, among them House and Garden, Bon Appetit, and Woman’s Day.
Corning formed an alliance with the March of Dimes, whose goal is the eradication of birth defects. One source of income for the organization were Gourmet Galas held in major cities featuring a cooking competition between local and national celebrities. Neal judged about 140 of these black-tie competitions and, as he stated, wore out two tuxedos. Thus he met and judged with the likes of Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey, Craig Claiborne, and Martha Stewart, among others.
With the help of several of the area’s best cooks he wrote the cookbook Cornelius for Corning, which won a Tastemakers Award as one of the best cookbooks of 1983. Subsequently he edited the Designed for Living cookbook and continued to write weekly newspaper columns in the Elmira Star Gazette and then the Corning Leader. After “retirement” his food-oriented essays appeared in the area’s Mountain Home magazine.
Neal and Pat Dugan started culinary classes at 171 Cedar Arts Center that continued for almost twenty years that featured both Neal and Pat’s classes and then area chefs. Neal continued to plan and emcee the classes for several years.
Neal was an avid collector of early nineteenth century caricatures and Staffordshire figures from the same period.
There will be no calling hours and he will be buried next to his sister in Calvary Cemetery in Glenmont, New York. Contributions in Neal’s name may be made to the Foodbank or Corning’s Meals on Wheels.
Neal O’Donnell came into the lives of Mountain Home readers in August 2009 with the presciently-titled column “Cook in a Book.” We published Neal’s ninety-second column last month—“Cottage: a Place, a Dish, a Lifestyle”—his last for us. Neal penned the facts of his life himself, and there are not enough words to describe the larger-than-life character we all knew, and that shone through every sentence he wrote. We will miss him always. Godspeed, good friend. ~ Teresa Banik Capuzzo