My Family - East Meets West
- By Janelle Cornelio - Oct 1996
My name is Janelle Cornelio. I am descended from a proud heritage. My cultural background is diverse, spanning the entire globe. What I am, and who I am is largely a result of the melding of these various cultures. The story begins long ago in various countries around the world. I will begin in the Philippines.
Pablo Cornelio, my paternal great-grandfather was born in a little village on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. His father, a Spaniard, was a ship's captain who washed up on one of the many beaches that dot the island after his freighter sank during a violent storm off the coast. Pablo grew up on a tobacco farm his father started. But Pablo loved music and became a musician, starting his own band in the early 1900s. Along the way, he met and married Simeona Alpitchi. Together, they had nine children. As the economic opportunities became scarce, Pablo and his family moved to Hawaii to seek their fortune. My paternal grandfather, Felix Cornelio, was their eighth child.
The Cornelio family worked on the Sugar plantations on the Honokaa coast of Hawaii. During the summers, the family would drive to Kona to pick coffee as a supplement to their income. In Kona, Felix met and fell in love with Marion Akahane, my paternal grandmother, in the little town of Holualoa on the slopes of Mt. Hualalai. Marion was the daughter of Saburo Akahane and Emily Alawa. Saburo came from Hiroshima, Japan. Not much is known about him. He died when Marion was six years old. Emily was the adopted daughter of the Alawa family who were Congregational missionaries. Her father David Kali was descended from the Hawaiian royal family. It is a mystery as to who Emily's mother is, but it is known that David and the Alawa family were close friends. To this day, his body is buried in the Mokuaikaua Church graveyard where the Alawa family ministered.
Felix and Marion had six children. The last child, Michael Cornelio, is my father.
Leo Burkett, my maternal grandfather, died in a plane crash while on active duty in the armed forces during the Korean conflict. He was a Major in the Army. He grew up in the dust bowl of Oklahoma during the depression years, living on a steady diet of his favorite meal, corn bread and pinto beans. He was the son of Ed Burkett and Auda Smith. The Burketts of Oklahoma were farmers, like the kind you read about in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." They worked the land and along the way managed to raise seven children. The Burketts are a big "Clan," owing to their Scot-Irish heritage. The Burkett reunions are a big event where everyone comes to have fun and show off the latest additions to the clan. Leo's long tour of duty in the Army led him to meet and marry Fannie Kellond.
Fannie, my maternal grandmother came from a military family. Her father Arthur Kellond was also a Major in the Army. Originally from Canada, Arthur came to the United States to settle in Louisville Kentucky. There, he married Dorothy Overgaard. Together, they had three children. Fannie, the youngest child was born at Tripler Army Medical hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii while Arthur was stationed there in 1918.
When Leo Burkett died, my mother, Catherine Cornelio was six years old. Her younger twin brothers were only two years old. Fannie was left on her own to raise six children. In 1955, Fannie moved to Portland, Oregon to live with Arthur and Dorothy to raise her family.
My parents took two different routes to the place where they were married in Anderson, Alaska, a little town just 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks.
My dad, Michael Cornelio, left Hawaii in 1971 to join the U.S. Air Force. As a Signals Analyst in the Air Force, he spent many years in Electronics and Computer work, especially at remote bases in Alaska. But like his father before him, and his grandfather before that, my dad loved music. It was his music that led him to be the volunteer choir director at a little church just outside Clear Air Force Base, in Anderson, Alaska. There, he met my mom, Catherine Burkett.
Mom's great love is teaching. After graduating from Southwest Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, she taught children of migrant workers in Donna, Texas and children from the Hopi Indian reservation at a boarding school in Riverside, California. At the time that she met my dad, she was the Director of Education at the same little church in Anderson. She had come there on a grant from a little church in Arkansas. Years earlier, she had gone to Alaska as a summer missionary and fallen in love with the place. Now, she had gone back to Alaska to fall in love with my dad. After a year of working together at that little church, my dad proposed to my mom through a Christmas card. That card is still in their wedding album to this day.
It's funny how so many ironic things have happened just in the course of the few short years that I can trace my family's history. Things like my paternal great grandfather going from Japan to die in Hawaii while my maternal grandfather went from America to die in Japan working for the same Army that dropped an atom bomb in the city that my great grandfather was born. And my maternal grandmother being born in Hawaii at about the same time that my paternal grandfather was coming from the Philippines to a new life in Hawaii. And even the fact that my mother who came from a military family, married a military man who came from Hawaii, where her own mother was born. It's even strangely coincidental that both my mom and my dad's mom were both six years old when their fathers died. All of these seemingly unconnected events leading up to ... me.
So who am I? I am Janelle Cornelio, daughter of Michael Cornelio and Catherine Burkett, whose families came from many places with many backgrounds to meet in this place called America where I can be whatever I want to be. Those families came looking for a place where their children could grow up to be just that way. Each of them brought their hopes and dreams to build a new life and their best traits are all now a part of me. According to my dad and mom, I am studious and creative (from the Japanese), industrious and enterprising (from the Filipinos), friendly and generous (from the Hawaiians), independent and loyal (from the Scot-Irish), and adventurous and innovative (from the Danes). All in all, I suppose that I am many things, but mainly, I am the result of the values and skills that I have learned from my culturally diverse family and their great passion for life.
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