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The goodness of a great man: Remembering Fred Cornforth

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The goodness of a great man: Remembering Fred Cornforth

Mar 31, 2024 | 12:10 pm ET
By Marc C. Johnson
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The goodness of a great man: Remembering Fred Cornforth
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Fred Cornforth (Photo via Idaho Capital Sun).

In one way this is a tragic story of a brave and talented fellow who that devil cancer took way too soon. Being diagnosed with glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that claimed, among others, Arizona Senator John McCain, is a death sentence. End of story. Always a tragic outcome. 

But in another way this is not really a sad story. Quite the contrary. It’s a story of uplifting decency, a story of living your life to make the world better for others. 

Fred Cornforth, the Idaho businessman, philanthropist, education evangelist and absolutely one of the most decent and caring people I’ve ever known, died last week, fighting brain cancer all the way to the end, at the too young age of 64. 

His is a story of how to live and make the world a better place for others, a story of how you can choose to live when it’s certain you have little time left to live. 

I met Fred Cornforth on a Zoom call at about the time he became chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party in March of 2021. He had just taken a job, I reminded him, that was about as glamorous – and perhaps futile – as being a lifeboat superintendent on the Titanic. Salmon aren’t the only endangered species in ultra-right Idaho, Democrats always swim upstream there. 

Given more than 40 years in and around the state’s politics, I’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic party leaders come and go – often quickly – and I figured Fred, with a very limited background in party politics, was sure to find the role thankless, tiring and frustrating. But I underestimated Fred Cornforth. 

He won the chair role, as former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco told me, the old fashioned way, by “getting on the phone and getting in the car.” Fred, a guy who reveled in the data and research of life and politics, “figured out who would be voting, and he called them because no one ever does that.” And he listened and listened, and LaRocco became a fast friend and huge admirer. 

His cancer diagnosis forced Fred to step down prematurely from his political role in 2022, but he made a difference in a short time, professionalizing the state party, ramping up fundraising and pushing back against the utter nonsense that comes to the surface in a one-party state. 

If that was all there was to Fred’s story, it would be enough. At a fraught time for American democracy, a very successful businessman thought enough of the importance of politics and preserving democracy to get involved in order to try and make a difference.

But that was only part, and a relatively small part, of Fred Cornforth’s goodness. 

Fred made a tidy fortune doing good – he developed affordable housing and community renewal projects in at least a dozen states – and then proceeded to give that fortune away to do even more good. 

As a kid Fred lived at the ragged edge of poverty. He didn’t always have enough to eat when he attended college at Idaho State University, so he funded a food bank there, and also at Boise State and the University of Idaho. When he sat in a dentist chair years ago to get 16 cavities taken care of the dentist took pity and did the work for free. So, with that generous memory firmly planted, Fred funded dental clinics.

While in high school in Belgrade, Montana, Fred had a chance to attend a Model United Nation’s program. He said it changed his life, so he gave the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University $750,000 to underwrite the Institute’s Model UN program. The 300 kids who attended this year’s program in Boise had their own life changing experiences thanks to Fred.  

“He was just the brightest light, the biggest star in the sky,” Jodi Peterson Stigers, the executive director of Boise’s Interfaith Sanctuary Homeless Shelter told me. Jodi met Fred at a political fundraiser, and shortly thereafter he became a $500,000 donor to her efforts to build a new shelter for folks caught in awful circumstances due to a lack of housing. 

“He was so fascinated in what we were doing. Wanted to know everything about Interfaith Sanctuary, how it worked, who we served, everything,” Peterson Stigers told me. Like most everyone Fred touched, Jodi and her husband the jazz musician Curtis Stigers, became fast friends with Fred and his wife Jill. 

But there is more, and with Fred there was always more. Fred funded 45 orphanages in countries around the world. Read that sentence again – 45 orphanages.

Fred played football at Belgrade High School, in fact was the quarterback on the state championship teams of 1977-78. The school needed a new scoreboard for its football field last year, so Fred funded the classiest video scoreboard in Montana in honor of his high school coach, Bill Green.  

“The things I learned in football,” Cornforth told the Belgrade News. “It’s a great reminder in life, when you call a huddle, what you talk about and listen to. You can’t always be the quarterback; you have to listen. I learned how to listen in huddles. It helped me to do what I do now,” which was to build a billion dollar company that does good. 

Some years ago Fred had a family vacation home on the north coast of Oregon where I now live. He understood the community, a haven for vacationing families but also a place where hourly wage jobs barely sustain a family and where decent affordable housing is nearly impossible to find. When I told Fred that as the health district I chair was trying to pull off a huge local project – a new health center, a renovated skilled nursing facility and workforce housing for health care workers – he was instantly interested. I didn’t ask him for it, but he came out of the blue and pledged $250,000 to the cause, with no restrictions as to how the money might be used.

“Use it where it will do the most good,” he told me. 

That incredible gesture was so like Fred, a humble, big hearted man, always looking for a way to help. 

At one point in his remarkably accomplished life, Fred was an Adventist minister, a man of God doing genuine Christian work on earth. At a time when many self-proclaimed devout Christians seem more interested in partisan culture wars than in feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted, Fred lived the true meaning of his faith.

Larry LaRocco believes Fred was drawn to political involvement not for power or fame or the ego rush, but because in our messy, disordered, often dysfunctional country politics can still be a path to meaningful change that helps people have a better life. Fred was, LaRocco said, “All about public service. I think he was trying to take his religious, ethical, moral background and apply it to politics.” 

As the Psalmist says, “Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.” 

What a life Fred Cornforth lived. So many, many lives touched and changed. Perhaps the true lesson of such a life is to just live like there is no tomorrow, and when your time is up, make sure you leave the world a better place. That is certainly what Fred did. 

It was humbling to know this incredible man. And his memory will be a blessing.