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Retiree's Corner :: Don Cornelis

October 12, 2006 by Teri Lanning

In police 10 codes, “10-24” translates as “Assignment completed”…and in Indiana, police officers are entitled to “retire” after 20 years of service and receive their full pension. 

However, many officers put in much longer tours of duty—some more than 40 years—and then they embark on new careers, take up old (or new) hobbies, rack up some good

R & R—or all of the above and more.

In short, the action doesn’t have to stop after the last day on the beat. This feature catches up with some of our SBPD retirees and shares some behind-the-scenes scoops on what they’re up to…
Don Cornelis

Joined the department in 1951

Served “Uncle Sam” in the Army Military Police from 1952-54

Returned and retired as a SBPD Sergeant in 1971

Later returned as Public Service Officer for 8 years

Second retirement in 1993

FOP Chaplain “nearly as long as he was a policeman”

Volunteer Historian for the SBPD and Annual FOP Memorial Service

“I’m Belgian- I gotta keep workin’…After all, the Belgian household is run by the wife, not the husband!”

Don Cornelis, 78, smiles with pride and names his heritage for his work ethic—and his dedication to keeping busy with a number of activities since his “second retirement” from the South Bend Police Department. In all, he’s put in 28-plus years as an employee and continues logging countless hours as a volunteer and “caretaker” of SBPD’s history.

It’s a big job, someone’s got to step up and do it, and Don’s the man to do it. He is highly appreciated for not just his work, but the fact that he’s happy to do it.

(Come see the Lobby display “Women in Policing” throughout October and glimpse the history he helped us gather together…)

“What an interesting career here at the department…they had me all over! Maybe my most rewarding detail was the ‘roving ambo’ service we had before it was given to the fire department in 1967…We pleaded to keep the ambo; after seeing it all and saving lives, how can you beat that?” Don recalled.

He beams when counting 32 successful baby deliveries— in extreme conditions such as stairwells, streets, seats…In practice, the police were truly the first paramedics, before it was even a designated public safety profession. He laughed and remembered one of the mottoes they used, “You call; we haul.”

Don added, “It was great PR for us as policemen because we saw things a normal uniform officer may not ever see…it was a door opener, literally, because they’d trust us to help them during their emergency…and we might be able to gather info helpful to other policing matters. Later when I became a patrol sergeant on the west side, everyone knew and held respect for me because of the ambo work I did.”

Even as he believes that every seven years, a person should switch-out career paths to clear their mind or learn new things…he stated that he never wanted to leave the streets as a patrol sergeant because that’s where he felt most fulfilled, along with the friendships with officers he worked with—and looked out for—along the way.

However, after his first retirement, he did something he always had wanted to do—learn Body Shop work and joined Freeman-Spicer (ironically, he said that historical building was just torn down). He also did security for Notre Dame and Brinks, but in a short time found all the hours taking away from his family life with his wife and daughter. So when opportunity arose at the SBPD again, he came back as a civilian and worked the front desk as a Public Service Officer.

“I got to meet the third generation…and see how much law enforcement has changed with the times and technologies…it’s an altogether different world…That’s why our history is so important to hold onto. Just the police cars themselves; this generation would barely believe how we operated!” he laughed.

Don also has generational ties within the law enforcement community: Son-in-law Cpl. Steve Hammer serves the South Bend Police Department as an Evidence Technician and Second Detail “Afternoons” Uniform Patrol Officer, and second cousin Sgt. Kenny Cornelis as a Crime Scene Technician with the County Metro Homicide Unit.

Just the other day, he was helping one of his Hammer grandsons with a research paper and compared differences from the earlier days to policing in 2006. One issue he notes is the utter and unfortunate lack of respect for authority and each other-- seemingly so prevalent in today’s society.

“I would still encourage anyone to go into policing—even with today’s challenges— because I believe it is still one of the most honorable professions there is. But ironically, that was not my first choice for a career,” said Don.

He further explained, “I played a cop in a Catholic High School play so you’d think it was meant to be…but like so many young men back then, I worked at Studebaker’s thinking that would be my career until it went bad and I was laid off…I needed work so I applied everywhere—at the utilities, the post office, the police and fire departments…and as fate had it, the police department came through first. So I took it and started at $254 a month!”

Yet with his ongoing work as a police historian, Don knows the true value in a photo…and a picture can be worth a thousand words. So even while police work was not how Don originally pictured himself, he winked and said “looking the big picture,” maybe it was in his heart all along—because it still is.

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