From the time he was a young boy in upstate New York, James Cornacchia knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up: become a police officer or a chef. By the time he made his way to Georgia in his 20s, he had chosen his path. Cornacchia, 42, served as a police officer at Georgia Tech for almost 20 years. On June 1, he died from complications of COVID-19.
“He was such a driving force in our family,” said his wife, Christal Cornacchia, 44. “It is really hard for me to imagine my life without him.”
James Cornacchia and his twin brother were the youngest of four sons in their tightknit Italian Lebanese family. As with most twins, they got into their share of mischief — covering themselves and the entire kitchen in flour while their mom was cooking or dropping potatoes into the clothes dryer to see what would happen.
That sense of mischief would follow Cornacchia well into adulthood, said his wife and colleagues. His larger-than-life personality left an imprint on everyone who knew him. It is what drew Christal to him when they met in 1999. “He was somebody who just lit up a room. He never met a stranger. He was always so funny and full of life,” said Christal Cornacchia. The couple married and became a family of five raising their three sons — Salvatore, 15, Giovanni, 11, and Vincenzo, 8 — to be independent young men just as Cornacchia’s parents had raised him and his brothers, Christal Cornacchia said.
Though he chose law enforcement as his formal career, Cornacchia never lost his desire to cook. He was always whipping up homemade sauce and meatballs for his family or experimenting with new recipes, said his wife. “He introduced me and our children to so many different dishes. It was never plain Jane around here at dinnertime,” she said.
As a family, they enjoyed spending time outdoors, camping in summertime and gathering with extended family, said Christal Cornacchia. Her husband became cub master for a Boy Scouts of America pack at their church, St. James the Apostle Catholic Church. And at home, Cornacchia, who was always tinkering with something, had begun teaching his oldest son life skills like changing a tire and mowing the lawn.
“He liked giving back to the community and thought it was important to live by the example you want your children to follow,” said his wife.
Robert Connolly, chief of police at Georgia Tech, said the past few weeks have been a roller coaster dealing with a pandemic, civil unrest and losing Cornacchia. Cornacchia, Connolly said, was dedicated to his job, his community and his family. “He was a kindhearted guy and he loved the students at Georgia Tech,” Connolly said. “He definitely fit the mold of what we want an officer to be.”
Cornacchia had aspired to move from patrol to become an investigator and was in training before his death, Connolly said. On Monday, he was promoted posthumously to the position.
For someone so full of life, Christal Cornacchia knew something was wrong one Sunday when her husband said he didn’t feel well. He was never one to nap and rarely got sick, she said, but that day, he told her he just needed to rest. When his condition deteriorated, he was tested for COVID-19 and the result was positive.
At first, he self-treated at home, but Cornacchia got worse. In the hospital, he was put on a ventilator but continued to decline. When she heard the outlook from doctors, Christal Cornacchia was taken to the emergency room. “It was almost like in some odd way he needed me to still be there,” she said. When she was able to see him, she sat next to his bed in mask and full protective gear and held his hand. “I told him he had to get better and come back home, that we have a lot of things ahead of us,” she said. But Cornacchia could not pull through.
Now Christal Cornacchia is trying to help her boys keep memories of their father alive, showing them videos and pictures and telling stories. She tells them not to hide their feelings and that it is OK for them to miss their father.
The funeral is planned for Saturday, a ceremony at their church with additional family members who survive Cornacchia, including his parents, Chester and Dyana Cornacchia of Remsen, New York; twin brother, Joseph Cornacchia of McDonough; oldest brother Anthony Cornacchia of Locust Grove and middle brother Brian Cornacchia of Rome, New York.
His co-workers at Georgia Tech — who have coordinated a fundraiser to help the family cover expenses now and in the future — are also planning to have a celebration of life with family members, Connolly said.
Cornacchia was such a strong presence in their home that Christal Cornacchia said she still wants to call out for him, expecting him to be in the garage or somewhere around the house working on one of his projects. “I miss him and I know I will for many months and years to come,” she said. “He loved so much and he was just so loved.”
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