Divine Intervention Led Cornforth to Wheeling
WHEELING – Bill Conforth’s childhood dream was to play center field for the New York Yankees. Instead, through a series of twists and turns that every person’s life takes, Cornforth – a New York City native – found himself at Wheeling Park High School as a teacher and head of the Park speech team.
Cornforth joined the seminary as a 17-year-old teenager in Manhattan, then came to Wheeling as a 19-year-old aspiring priest. It was in the Friendly City he discovered his love of teaching and the theater, raised a family and honed a desire to serve the community.
Today, Cornforth serves as drama teacher and coach of the speech team at Wheeling Park that has won 35 consecutive state championships. Cornforth has been part of all 35 victories, either as an assistant or head coach. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Wheeling Jesuit University in its BOLD program, which focuses on adults seeking college degrees.
“For a guy who came to Wheeling at 19 (in 1969), Wheeling offered amazing opportunities I wouldn’t have had in a big city,” he said.
Cornforth said his journey to West Virginia actually began in 1967 when he joined the Marist Brothers seminary in Manhattan.
“The director of that seminary (Brother John Malich) really changed my life,” Cornforth said. “He was really a mentor and father figure there. What he taught us in the seminary was your life should be in service to others, and you should go to bed feeling spent.”
In 1969, Malich sent Cornforth to Wheeling to live with the Marist Brothers priests who taught at Wheeling Central Catholic High School.
“I was only 19 years old, living with older men who were teachers, so I got to see men in action who were living a life in service to others, and they were great models to me,” Cornforth said.
While living on 13th Street, he pursued his academic degree at then-Wheeling College and came to appreciate the atmosphere in Wheeling.
“My first impression of Wheeling was I just loved it at first sight,” Cornforth said. “I just loved all the urban-Victorian architecture of East Wheeling – I loved the neighborhood.
“I remember writing home to my mother that everywhere I looked, there were hills. I had never lived in a place like that, and I just loved the mixture of the urban and the hills. I loved the appearance of Wheeling from the start.”
And the New Yorker also appreciated what Wheeling had to offer.
“I loved the downtown area,” he said. “There were restaurants and bars and movie theaters, and there were people on the streets. It was like a little New York, and I was just a walk away from all of that.”
On Cornforth’s first night in Wheeling, he met a large family on Wheeling Island he would come to know very well. Cornforth went on to work with three of the family’s 12 children as educators in Ohio County Schools – current Assistant Superintendent Bernie Dolan, and his sisters, teachers Peggy and Mary.
“It was the most beautiful family I ever met,” he said. “They, plus other people, gave me a wonderful impression of the city. It said ‘Friendly City,’ and I believed that.”
Cornforth soon made a friend in Wheeling who took him to a play at the Towngate Theatre, where he first saw yet another mentor in his life – Towngate Theatre founder, artistic director and actor Hal O’Leary.
“I had seen a lot of theater, but it was always Broadway,” Cornforth said. “I didn’t know theaters like the Towngate existed. I just though all the theaters in the country were in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.”
Cornforth called O’Leary the best actor he had ever seen, and he arranged to interview him for a school project and the two became friends. Soon after, Cornforth left the seminary, began acting at Towngate himself, and graduated with a teaching degree.
He had opportunities to teach back in New York and in Washington, D.C., but took a job at St. Vincents School in Elm Grove. He thought this would allow him the opportunities to learn how best to teach, while also working with O’Leary and improving his acting skills. O’Leary also gave Cornforth an opportunity to direct at the Towngate Theatre.
A year and a half later, Cornforth left St. Vincents to take a job teaching prisoners at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he started an inmate theater group. He said it wasn’t a scary experience.
“They were just men,” Cornforth said. “If I hadn’t known where I was, I would have sensed I was in an adult education class. It was a voluntary program, and these men wanted to better their lives.”
Cornforth worked at the prison five years before starting at Wheeling Park High School in 1979, where he began as an assistant speech coach under former head coach Fran Schoolcraft. It was 10 years ago he assumed the head coach position. He works into the evenings assisting students, and even makes himself available to those who want to practice during the summer.
He still remembers the words of Malich in New York about service to others until you “are spent.”
“I try,” Cornforth said. “Yes, I feel spent. I try to be in service to others. I feel I have been. I hope I have passed it on to others. But I see so many who really live their life in service to others, and are models to me.”
Cornforth hopes the service he provides to students, the giving of himself to help them academically, with pay off when they, in turn, give of themselves to help others.