On June 2, Chris Cornell had finished mowing grass at Carrie Blake Community Park in preparation for a Hurricane Ridge Kennel Club event and returned home to mow his own yard where he died of cardiac arrest.
The passing of Cornell, obedience and rally chairman for the HRKC, involved in showing, judging and training dogs since the 1970s, stunned family members and fellow dog advocates.
“His passing was devastating; it was definitely a shock and totally unexpected,” said Shahn Cornell, Chris’ only child. “That’s the one thing that resonated with everyone I’ve spoken with; no one can comprehend how he passed.”
Cornell was helping HRKC prepare for the June 3-5 Agility Obedience and Rally Trials at Carrie Blake Community Park, and was less than three weeks from judging the seventh-annual Masters Obedience Championship at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.
The event was originally slated for January but was postponed because of COVID concerns.
“[That was] really disappointing,” Chris said in an interview earlier this year, “as I was looking forward to going to NYC.”
HKRC president Lorraine Shore said, “It’s a huge honor and very few judges ever have the opportunity to judge at the largest, and most prestigious, dog show in the United States.”
Said Shahn Cornell, “I honestly think he would see it as one of his biggest achievements in that field.”
This commitment to service on his last day was consistent with how Cornell lived the entirety of his life, according to those who knew him.
“He always had all the equipment we needed there on time as well as mowing the grounds before the shows,” said member Carolyn Money. “Chris was a friend and caregiver to so many and had a special fondness for helping the elderly and those who needed help.”
Love of dogs and the kindness and encouragement he showed to his fellow humans are an essential part of his legacy.
Chris Cornell was born April 4, 1947, in Manhattan, New York. An only child, he told the Gazette in December 2021 that his family always had a dog, at least one and usually a couple.
“A lot of them were mutts, he said. “My parents rescued dogs from the humane society.”
Cornell met his future wife Claire at Arizona State University in Tucson, Ariz. They were married in 1971.
“They were together for their entire lives [and] they loved each other very much,” Shahn said. “Their journey with dogs was definitely mutual.”
Chris Cornell said, “(My wife’s) mother was a big cat person so she grew up with cats but loved dogs. It drew us together — we both liked animals.”
Like his father, Shahn grew up surrounded by dogs: “My entire life we always had a dog. First one I remember was a black lab mix named Hitch. For a good chunk of my childhood we had nine dogs.”
Shahn’s Llewellin English setter, Queen, given to him by his grandparents in 1976, is famous among some circles for being the first English setter to win the Obedience Trial Champion title in 1980, due to Chris’ dedicated obedience training of the “firecracker,” as Shahn described her.
“Before that he was involved in dog shows,” Shahn said, “but it was that process that got him interested in judging.”
“I started exhibiting my first obedience dog at about the time Chris became an AKC obedience judge in 1985,” wrote Sandra Davis from Arizona. “He quickly gained a reputation for being an astute, caring adjudicator of our sport. He had an uncanny ability to make each exhibitor relax a bit in the ring. You felt that he was rooting for you to pass… he always had an encouraging word or two not to give up.”
Davis’ comments are echoed many times in the memories exhibitors share of him.
Shahn said that Cornell was also a “huge civil war buff… pretty much every civil war book that has been published he has a copy of and has read.”
Shahn said Cornell was a photographer, who taught him the basics and inspired him to become a photographer, beginning at age 10.
Chris and Claire Cornell moved to Sequim in 2000, after Cornell retired from his job as engineering supervisor for the City of Phoenix.
“He spent his entire career working for the city of Phoenix,” said Shahn. He added that his mother was not yet retired when the couple moved to Sequim. She was a software developer who worked “for banks and other institutions,” working on Y2K adaptions at the time.
He said that Cornell “opened up” in Sequim, became even more jovial, and appreciated the people and beauty of the region.
Claire Cornell passed last April, and the black flat-coated retriever Bree, show and therapy dog, passed this February.
“Everyone who’s known him and my mother,” Shahn said, “said he’d go up multiple times a week and tend her grave.” He said that Cornell made sure there were fresh flowers there, grew his own grass for it and kept it mowed.
Laid to rest
On June 17 at Sequim View Cemetery, “we laid our wonderful friend Chris Cornell to rest,” wrote Shore, with Shahn and many of Chris’ friends from the Hurricane Ridge Kennel Club, WAG, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Olympic Humane Society on hand.
Westminster Kennel Club sent Cornell’s judging vest and medal to Shahn and he interred the vest with Chris’ urn. Chris, and his beloved dog Bree, were buried together next to his wife Claire.
Shahn Cornell said that his father had said previously that he didn’t want a memorial or an official service, quoting, “‘People can come and say a few words if they want.’”
He explained, “That’s how we did it for mom, too. That was how they were … he just didn’t want to be a bother.”
Sharon DelaBarre, AKC superintendent and friend, said, “His devotion to his wife, who shared his love of dogs, was a beautiful thing. His humor, willingness to help and dedication to helping people be better for their dogs, stands as a goal for the rest of us.”
Ginger, a golden retriever Claire had adopted from WAG, was immediately taken in by old friends of the family, the Westers, who are also the ones who introduced the Cornells to Sequim.
For those in the community who wish to commemorate his passing, Shahn said, “he expressly wanted people to donate to either WAG or the Olympic Peninsula Humane Society to help out dogs.” To donate in his name, visit: ophumanesociety.org or wagsequimwa.com.
Shore said HRKC members are dedicating the club’s July shows — All-Breed shows in conjunction with Rally and Obedience Trials July 29-31 — to Cornell, and that there will be a dedication in the show catalog and a cake at the events.
Community members who would like to express their feelings or read those left by others can visit HKRC’s Facebook page at facebook.com/Hurricane-Ridge-Kennel-Club-1615953215286313.
(To read more about Cornell’s distinguished record in the dog show world, visit the Sequim Gazette online.)