Tribute to John Cornwell

I was very sorry to learn of the death, aged 80, of John Cornwell, who more than anyone was responsible for me leading a life of table tennis since early 1963. I think I first went along to an evening session run at the old Cambridge YMCA by John & Margaret Cornwell (herself a decent player), with Les Constable and possibly John Loker helping, and I soon transferred to the packed Saturday session, which started in the afternoon and carried on, with open practice, late into the evening. Hooked on TT, with John's expert help I progressed to playing in the 1st Division of the Cambridge League and for the county within less than 2 years of taking up the game.

As a coach John had a quiet, wise authority and charisma, and taught for then very advanced (reversed sandwich) technique, with a square-stance & early through-the-ball counter-hitting style/timing on both wings, and a whipped forehand loop. As the still relatively young former top Cambridgeshire champion (and highly England ranked player) who had to retire early owing to injury (bad back I think), he was locally held in awe, and I can still remember with amazement how one evening, with no practice but with excellent ball control and placement, he was still able to overcome the pimpled bat defence of the other legendary Cambs player, John Thurston, something like 21-16. Certainly when he was 'controlling' to pupils, he constantly gave you the near perfect ball and never looked like making a mistake. He was so patient, enthusiastic and encouraging. John not only coached locally at the YM on Saturdays, and a bit mid-week, but he was administratively/organisationally active in Cambridgeshire and in the wider region - I can remember him running regional sessions with Ken Marchant, and working alongside Jack & Elsie Carrington and Harry Venner on ETTA 'roadshows'. He knew personally the big names in TT. He and Margaret were also heavily involved in running Cambridge and county teams, and the Cambridge and Cambridgeshire Closeds, and SE Midlands League tournaments and the Cambs Open at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. And John wasn't just at the control desk: he would get stuck into setting up lights, putting up tables etc. Before the days when we got too concerned by health & safety, I remember being terrified watching him perched upright on the top of a very high 4 legged ladder/stool, stretching up to fix lights to the ceiling of the YMCA hall (no doubt with John Loker helping), ready for some big match! The Cornwells also organised trips to outside open tournaments and international matches. Unfortunately John and Margaret had other interests besides TT (I think he had also played football for Cambridge City and been very good at other sports), and were to move on to take a big administrative involvement in golf and bowls. This move away from table tennis began while I was still a junior, but probably influenced by John's example I also began making a transition from player to coach without consciously deciding to, so that by around 1970 I took over from John as Cambs County Coaching Secretary, and around 1973/74 as Cambs National Councillor. I probably last saw John in the 70's, but a few years ago I am pleased that I did 'phone to thank him for all he done for me, and countless others, as a great coach. He seemed pleased. So many other former pupils are still involved in table tennis, such as (I was reminded just this weekend) Debby Evans (nee Clarke), now living near Hertford. Since that call I have 'phoned and e-mailed him several times, the last being soon after Christmas to tell John about the sudden death of Alan Burgess. Always he remained calm, clear-headed, polite and interested (he enquired after Johnny Leach last time), each time promising to invite me to a reunion meal of past Cambridge TT enthusiasts, though this never happened! John's passing, though inevitable, is bit of a shock, but we have very fond memories and so much to be grateful to him for.

Ken Muhr (ex. Cambridge YMCA player and coach)

Author: via Cambridge Table Tennis League
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