Fletcher Cornely Sr. brought a positive attitude to everything he did in life, whether he was driving a local bus or leading a funeral procession.
To others, Cornely seemed to thrive off his interactions with the many people he encountered in life. He spent three decades as a bus driver with Metro Transit and founded what for many years was the area’s only Black-owned funeral-escort service.
“He often said he believed God put [him] here to bring joy and meet people and talk to them and impart kind words to them,” said his wife, Sharon Cornely.
Cornely died Sept. 16. He was 89.
Cornely grew up in Kansas City, raised by a single mother in a home with limited means after his father died. He began working as a young man, scraping together enough from early paychecks to buy his mother a wood-burning stove.
“Those were the little joys that he fondly remembered about his growing up as a young man and how deeply rooted he was with family,” his wife said.
Cornely arrived in the Twin Cities in 1949, according to a 2006 article in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He served in the Korean War and held jobs at a meatpacking plant and Northwest Airlines and running a security firm. He was also a single parent, raising three children in St. Paul.
A motorcycle lover, Cornely founded Cornely & Sons funeral escort service in 1969 — it was later reconstituted as Metropolitan Escort Services with the help of his wife. Sporting leather boots, a badge and a gun at the helm of a Harley-Davidson, Cornely and other riders would lead and direct traffic for processions run by funeral homes in the area.
“Pops had it all. … The bike was all decked out,” said his son, Fletcher Cornely Jr. “He looked sharp. He was always professional.”
One of his riders was then-St. Paul Police Officer William Finney, who would later become the city’s police chief.
Cornely “was a very affable, good-natured guy,” Finney said. “I … respected him quite a bit for his business acumen.”
After a time as a community services officer with the St. Paul Police Department, Cornely joined Metro Transit in 1976 while continuing the escort business on the side. He drove many busy urban routes, including Route 21 on Lake Street and Route 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“He’s a man of service and integrity,” said Anna Penland, who worked with Cornely at Metro Transit. “He meant so much to our company because he always projected such a positive interaction with our customers on the street as well as [with] our employees.”
Penland, an assistant transportation manager, said Cornely mentored other drivers and set an example for colleagues with his demeanor. She said she never saw Cornely have a negative moment or speak ill of others.
“He just was one of those one-of-a-kind people that you were grateful to have around you,” Penland said.
Cornely’s son Vernard Cornely Sr. said his father was a hard worker who liked being around people.
“He loved his job,” Cornely said. “I never heard him complain about anything, actually.”
After several years working part-time, Cornely left Metro Transit in 2006. In his later years, he mentored children at Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul.
“That he enjoyed immensely because he got the opportunity to see young people, work with young children,” Sharon Cornely said. “And he often came home and said, ‘Man, I finally got this kid to [learn] those A, B, Cs.’ ”
Along with his wife Sharon, of Richfield, and sons Fletcher Jr. of Oklahoma and Vernard of St. Paul, survivors include daughters Rochelle of St. Paul and Dominique of Woodbury. Services were held in late September, and Cornely was buried Friday at Fort Snelling Cemetery.