Once an uncle, forever a father
A father isn’t always biological. A father is a man who steps up and raises a child, no matter the circumstance. Illinois Country Living’s 2018 Father of the Year is Chad Cornwell, member of and lineman for EnerStar Electric Cooperative in Paris.
At 13 years old, Breanne Like’s future was uncertain. Her mother, Caprice, died in a horse riding accident shortly after she turned 1. Because her biological father wasn’t around, she lived with her grandparents. At age 6, her grandfather passed away, and later her grandmother died. That’s where Chad, her 29-year-old uncle, stepped in and became Breanne’s guardian.
“Honestly, my biggest worry was where I was going to go,” Breanne explains. “It was just a whirlwind because I just lost my grandmother, and it was hard to figure out where I was going to fit in. It was a scary time, but I had always hoped that he would step in and take me because I didn’t want to leave.” Her next closest relative was her great-uncle who lived in Michigan.
Chad didn’t think twice about the decision to care for his niece. “I didn’t want her to go anywhere else,” Chad says. “There was no question at all that I wanted her to stay here.”
There were many reasons Breanne wanted to nominate her uncle, who she now calls dad. “He has always been there for me, always pushed me,” Breanne explains. “He was the one who stepped up and took me in when I was in a vulnerable situation… Me being the age I was, I think it would be scary for anybody to take on a 13-year-old, but he did it without hesitation. So, I just wanted to nominate him as a thank you.”
Chad was living with his mother at the time of her death helping to support his family and raise Breanne, and they had to get used to their new living situation. “I was always there to help, but it wasn’t just me… Then it became just me,” Chad remembers. “I’d get her up, ready for school, and then dinner that night. Didn’t have my mom there to cook, so we sometimes ate a little bit of fast food. These were just everyday things that I wasn’t used to.”
They lived at his mother’s house until he bought a new home a year later, where he resides today with his wife Leighsa and three children: Colton, 9; Claire, 5 and Catelynn, 2.
“The thing that stands out to me was after my mom had passed. Me and Breanne loaded up and went to Cedar Point [an amusement park in Ohio]. Just me and her. That was the big connection point between us, going on vacation by ourselves,” Chad says.
He admits that it wasn’t always easy raising an adolescent girl. “It was different on some things, like the clothes and the ‘girly stuff.’” He had a cousin and friends that were a big help with his busy work schedule that comes with being a lineman.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Chad says. “It’s a dangerous job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
For linemen, there are a lot of odd hours. Between callouts, storm travel and the day-to-day schedule of a lineman, Chad needed to plan to make sure Breanne was cared for. “I had to be prepared a lot more. If I got called out, where would she go? Who would watch her until I returned back home?”
But more than that, he always made sure to be there for Breanne. He never missed anything she was involved in, even if that meant showing up in his lineman gear.
To Breanne, having Chad attend all her events meant everything to her. “I didn’t have anybody else,” she explains. “I know he didn’t like softball, but it was my favorite. I could always count on looking out and seeing him right behind the outfield fence. For him to make a point to be there just meant the world. It meant he really cared and wanted to make sure I knew there was somebody there.”
He even showed up to her prom for photos, Breanne in her dress and Chad in his lineman gear. “He was in his work attire, and we just went on like it was a normal day,” Breanne remembers. “That’s what you got used to, me in my work attire,” Chad says. Now Breanne is used to that with her husband. She married a lineman.
“I honestly think that linemen are underappreciated,” Breanne said. “I don’t think people understand the sacrifice linemen make going out there and putting their life on the line. People think that they can just snap their fingers and the power comes back on. Not exactly how that works… They are doing something that a lot of people wouldn’t do to make sure that everybody has power.”
Chad is aware of the dangers that come with his job, and safety crosses his mind all the time. “You know there’s a lot of shortcuts you could take to make the job shorter, but it’s also a way of possibly getting yourself killed. It’s not worth taking shortcuts, especially when you have little ones to come home to.”
Chad says raising Breanne helped prepare him for fatherhood today. “For one thing, it made me know that I wanted to be financially secure enough to have children,” Chad explains. “It takes a lot of money to raise children. My mom and dad struggled with finances, and I didn’t ever want to be like that. I was a lot older when I had my children, but a lot more mature and financially ready for it.”
Some things didn’t change between then and now. Chad is still involved with his kids’ extracurriculars including gymnastics, dance, basketball and softball. They ride ATVs just like Chad did with Breanne.
“Sometimes I wish I would have started when I was younger,” Chad admits. “Probably would have had more children. I’m very thankful for the three that I have. We had two, and we debated a lot on a third, but I decided I wanted a third child because of my sister’s passing.” He wanted to make sure that if the worst were to happen, his kids wouldn’t be alone.
Chad says raising his three young children is easier now because he’s more mature and learned a lot from raising Breanne. “I didn’t do everything right by far, but we made it,” he says. “I’m very proud of her and what she’s become.”
He says she reminds him of his sister, especially her work ethic. “Caprice always worked hard in school,” and he pushed Breanne to do well too. “For me, school was first, and activities were second. The better you do in school, the more opportunities you’re going to have in the future.” This all paid off. Breanne graduated from the University of Illinois and now works as a chemist.
Chad recently became a grandfather with the birth of 3-month-old Mason Like, and he loves being a grandpa. “It’s unbelievable.” Chad says. “It’s kind of like the third generation. I had Breanne, now I’ve got my own, and now he comes along.”
On being named Father of the Year, Chad says, “I’m very honored and proud that she thought enough of me to nominate me for something like this. I didn’t do it because I had to. I did it because I wanted to.”
Go to icl.coop to read the submission letters for all the deserving dads nominated for Father of the Year.
Michael J Anderson
Robert E DeVous
Eric W McCartney