The Deal of a Lifetime: Denver Alum Supports Students with Scholarships

Growing up in small towns across Montana, Joe Cornell learned the value of entrepreneurship at an early age. He started shoveling neighbors’ driveways at the age of six. He trapped mice at his father’s stockyard and earned enough to buy a coveted “Nellie” Fox baseball glove. As a teenager he stacked hay bales on a nearby ranch and hired friends and locals to work for him.

He credits his parents – especially his father – with instilling lessons that have helped him start 36 successful businesses in the last 45 years.

“I grew up in a household filled with love, affection and support,” says Cornell. “Whatever I am, it’s because of my parents first – and then my education.”

Cornell arrived at UM in 1965. Along with his parents’ help, he financed his schooling by winning hands of poker at the Oxford and Stockman’s Bar. Since his pre-teen days, he had been a “neo-Marxist” who dove into the political philosophies of Marx, Engels and Lenin. But halfway through his degree program, he had a revelation: he realized he was in fact a capitalist, a member of the management class who puts his money to work rather than labor himself, and never looked back.

He moved to Denver because he needed a bigger market in which to operate. After years of investing in business after business, a Jewish friend started calling him a “macher” – the Yiddish word for a deal-maker. He liked that label and has kept it to describe what he does for a living. His joy is “putting wheels on deals.” He has found success in many areas, including real estate, cattle ranching and firearm appraisal. He started appraising in 1972 and has earned top credentials from the field’s primary certifying bodies, as well as publishing several books.

He now admits to being a “deal junkie.”

“The way I view what I do is that I’m just kind of cruising above it all, looking out for opportunities,” he says. “I take all my training and knowledge and make a decision as to whether the deal I am looking at is worth the gamble involved.”

As the years have gone by, Cornell’s thoughts have often turned back to Montana. He visited one of the towns where he grew up a few years ago and felt a strong pull to help some of the young people there.

“I have no family and no children,” he says. “So what am I going to do? I decided to figure out how to help people.”

His answer: provide access to education.

Joe Cornell with members of the UM leadership team.Cornell has committed a substantial portion of his estate to provide scholarship support for several groups of students, including military and public safety officers and their children and Missoula College students. He feels that Missoula College’s two-year programs are an excellent starting point for many young people to earn a vocational degree that leads to a meaningful career.

“His incredible support will eventually benefit hundreds of students every year,” said Shannon O’Brien, dean of Missoula College.

“My primary goal is to find good people that I can help. That’s the ultimate legacy I want to leave,” Cornell says. “It’s all about education. If we don’t become educated, we hugely reduce our chances of success.”

Pictured above: Past UM Foundation Board Chair Joe Whittinghill (far left), Missoula College Dean Shannon O’Brien (left center), President Royce Engstrom (right center) and UM Foundation President and CEO Shane Giese (far right) celebrate with Joe Cornell (center) at a reception in Denver.