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Not Quite ‘Speechless’: Park’s Cornforth Surprised With Honor From Tony Awards

photo by: Joselyn King

Wheeling Park High School speech and drama coach Bill Cornforth examines the book of letters submitted by former students on his behalf to win him an “honorable mention” Tony Award for “excellence in theatre education.”

WHEELING – Wheeling Park High School speech team and drama coach Bill Cornforth always makes certain his students are center stage, but Thursday former students arrived at the school with a surprise that turned the spotlight on him.

Yes, school has been out for a couple of weeks now. But Cornforth still can be found at WPHS most days prepping next year’s speech and debate students.

One former student – 2017 graduate Joana Tsuhlares – had arranged to meet with Cornforth in the J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center on Thursday to reminisce with him about her time in his class.

She greeted him first, but he became perplexed as 17 of his former students soon came in behind her and filed onto the stage.

As he received hugs from all he asked, “What is going on here?”

Tsuhlares told him they had submitted his name for consideration for a Tony Award “for excellence in theater education.” There were over 700 submissions, and Cornforth was one of just 18 nominees to receive “honorable mention.”

The long-time speech team teacher – who has been involved in each of the team’s 42 state championships – said he was not often left “speechless.” He said he was instead “flabbergasted,” and most honored to see many of his former students before him.

“Look at you – every one of you are all-stars,” he said.

Cornforth looked at the trophy given him by the students and added, “All of this really belongs to all of us, doesn’t it?”

The former students said in unison, “No.”

“I didn’t do this on my own, I just worked with you,” he explained. “I watched you from your freshman year just achieve more and more as you got better and better.

“That’s the beauty of my job – to work with folks like you.”

Cornforth said he often hears from other teachers about how their job is becoming “so difficult,” and that that is why there are teacher shortages.

“It is such a negative experience for so many people,” Cornforth said of teaching. “When I hear other teachers telling me complaints about students or administrators or whatever, I look up at the heavens and think I have such a great job working with you.

“I can’t say anything negative. All I can do is brag about all of you.”

Cornforth said they all had earned their honors – “not just as great theater people, but as great human beings.”

“I have the luckiest job in the world,” he concluded.

Tsuhlares led the effort to get Cornforth a Tony Award for education excellence. She is now working as an actor and director in New York.

“Mr. Cornforth is the reason I do this,” she said of her vocation. “He is the most humble and devoted person I know.”

Part of the submission process was to include at least three letters from people who know and have worked with the teacher. Tsuhlares contacted former WPHS speech and drama students, and nearly 50 letters on Cornforth’s behalf were submitted.

These and photos also submitted were compiled into a scrapbook that was presented to him Thursday.

Tsuhlares has her own memories of Cornforth and how he went above and beyond for his students. She said many nights he stays into the evening working with the students on their technique.

“We had many serious discussions, and he took me seriously,” she said.

Tsuhlares said after she graduated, she landed a role in “Hamlet,” and Cornforth drove five hours to come see the play and support her.

“I am a little in shock here,” Cornforth said after learning about the award and seeing past students. “They say when you die you see everybody you know from all your life, and that’s kind of what it was like.”

Students present were members of speech teams dating back to 1984 up until the most recent 2022 team. Many stayed for a while to reminisce with Cornforth as chairs were brought out onto the stage at the J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center for conversation.

“In my mind, they all belong together but they don’t know each other because they were from different years,” he continued. “It was a bit of a shock.”

He said the scrapbook presented to him was “very humbling,” and he was “going to take time to read every word.”

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