Entrepreneur and prolific Missouri philanthropist Harry M. Cornell Jr. leaves a legacy of generosity like no other

JOPLIN, Mo. – Successful business owner and ultra-philanthropist Harry M. Cornell Jr. passed away this week, but not without leaving a lasting impact on southwest Missouri.

Cornell’s reputation is one of utmost generosity, donating millions of dollars to several different entities across Missouri. But before he was making unsparing multimillion-dollar contributions, Cornell took a small family business and built it into an international Fortune 500 manufacturer. 

Born in 1928, Cornell graduated from Carthage High School and attended the University of Missouri School of Business. After receiving his degree, he joined Leggett & Platt in 1950 as a traveling salesman – a spring manufacturing company founded by his grandfather. 

After about 10 years of dedicated and diligent labor, Cornell worked his way up to president and CEO of the company, where his business-savvy mind took control – elevating the small, regional company to heights no one had ever imagined.

Under Cornell’s direction, the simple spring manufacturer was transformed into a massive $4 billion corporation with more than 20,000 employees spread across 131 plants in 18 countries.

As the company soared, Cornell unleashed a flood of generosity and philanthropic contributions across the Show-Me State. 

Cornell made two separate donations of $3 million and $4 million to the University of Missouri in the 2000s, leading to one of the premier MU College of Business buildings being named Cornell Hall. In 2015, Cornell permanently funded a leadership program for MU’s business school with an additional $6 million donation – bringing his total contributions to his alma mater to $13 million.

Also in 2015, Cornell’s family donated $3 million, alongside the Beshore family, to Freeman Health System in Joplin for advanced cancer treatment equipment. The advanced equipment included a TrueBeam linear accelerator, which offers a direct beam of radiation that can more effectively target tumors.

The institute has since been renamed to Freeman Cornell-Beshore Cancer Institute. 

In 2017, Cornell offered a $5 million grant to nonprofit Connect2Culture for its proposed Arts and Entertainment Center in downtown Joplin. After subsequent years of crowdfunding and early construction plans met with the pandemic through 2020 and 2021, Connect2Culture announced it is finally set to open the Harry M. Cornell Arts and Entertainment Complex later this year.

But his generosity didn’t stop there.

After the donation to Freeman Health System, Cornell provided two separate $10 million grants to Kansas City University-Joplin.

The first was crucial to the development of KCU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, which opened in 2017 as the Harry M. Cornell Medical Education Center. The medical center graduated its second class of students earlier this month.

The second $10 million donation came in 2019 to the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. The donation was used to develop a dental school for the university’s Joplin campus, slated to open in 2023 as the Harry M. Cornell Dental Education Center.

“I supported the need for the future KCU College of Dental Medicine to help give Joplin and the surrounding area significant additional health care opportunities,” Cornell said in a statement provided to the Joplin Globe at the time of the donation. “It is important to our region’s overall health care that we educate dentists for underserved areas and meet the needs of the population.”

When asked what type of person Cornell was, friend and former Speaker of the Missouri House Ron Richard answered, “Very well-respected, very intelligent, employee-driven – just a great human being.

“He hired employees and kept them over time. You can’t grow a company like he did without having employees that have your back. He just had a boundless energy for giving back.”

Karl Glassman, former president and CEO of Leggett & Platt and current chairman of the board, worked with Cornell for over 40 years, and recalled a story to the Joplin Globe about Cornell’s “employee-driven” business approach. 

In the 1980s, Leggett & Platt’s stock price had taken a big hit. One of the company’s employees – a single mother hoping to use her company stocks for her child’s college tuition – approached Glassman sharing concerns about the stock’s dip and how it would affect her family.

Cornell’s solution?

“Harry paid for that kid’s education, I later found out,” Glassman told the Globe. “That is Harry Cornell. He was so struck that that woman bet on him, so he reached out to her.”

Regardless of how improbable and impressive Cornell’s business achievements were, most won’t recall his total net worth or Leggett & Platt’s success with him at the helm. Instead, he’s remembered as one of the most prolific philanthropists Missouri has ever seen, leaving behind an enormous impact that continues to pay dividends for the people of the Show-Me State. 

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