Good Deeds
Written by Evelyn Cook, Pilot staff writer   
January 29, 2011 04:00 am

Ray Kornell, left, Al Capilla and Marilyn Kornell visit at Capilla’s home. The Pilot/Evelyn Cook
Marilyn Kornell, wife of Ray “Piano Man” Kornell, is a “little Mother Teresa,” according to her neighbor of 12 years, “Uncle” Al Capilla, 77.

“She’s always helping people, never stops,” Capilla said, “even though she’s only about 80 pounds, soaking wet – and 83 years old.”

He said she frequently drops by to help him around the house, and phones daily to check on him, since he lives alone and has health problems.

“She helps with shopping and laundry, and is always fixing stuff, and she won’t take any money. She’s always driving people to the doctor in Medford, and takes care of a handicapped man two days a week.

“She’s hardly ever home – too busy helping people. I’ll  be here in my place just talking to her, and I’ll say something like, ‘I’ve got to get that car washed,’ and next thing I know, she’s out there washing it,” Capilla said.

When Capilla saw a column by Curry Coastal Pilot Editor Scott Graves inviting readers to tell him about local people’s good deeds, he jumped at the chance and sent Graves an e-mail, singing Marilyn’s praises.

That prompted a Pilot reporter to give Marilyn a call. Since most people enjoy talking about themselves, the reporter expected her to be pleased.

“No, no, no, I don’t want you writing a story about me,” were Marilyn’s first words.

Why not, she was asked.

“I’m a private person. I don’t like to talk about what I do. The good Lord says we’re supposed to do our good deeds in secret,” she said.

She said she and her husband are devout Catholics and members of Star of the Sea Catholic Church. She said they try to live their lives, every day, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The only way she would agree to be interviewed, she said, was if the reporter gave all the credit and glory to God, not to her or Ray. But she couldn’t do the interview right then – there were too many people needing her help.

“Marilyn is such a dear friend. She really doesn’t like to talk about herself,” said Denise Nash, church secretary at Star of the Sea.

“Whenever I try to tell her what a wonderful person she is, she says, ‘No, no, no, that’s what we’re here for; we’re supposed to help other people.’ She helps me in the office here, and she’s a joy. We laugh and we talk, and whenever I have a doctor’s appointment in Medford, she drives me.

“She’ll drive anybody anywhere at the drop of a hat. For such a small package, she’s a real dynamo – like the Energizer bunny. And she never complains about her own problems, she’d rather listen to yours. I just love her,” Nash said.

At that moment, Juan Garza, Star of the Sea’s maintenance supervisor, walked into the office.

“Tell the reporter about Marilyn,” Nash said.

Garza grinned. “She makes the best biscuits, the best biscuits and gravy, for the church breakfast, and makes sure I get mine, every time. She’s always in a good mood, always a happy lady.”

He started chuckling as he remembered the time one of his sons was driving him up a steep hill behind Marilyn’s car, when she suddenly stopped halfway up, for no apparent reason. Garza’s son hit the brakes, the car stalled, then rolled downhill backward and off the pavement.

“You should have seen Marilyn running down that hill to check on us! At her age! She came running down all that way to make sure we were OK,” Garza said. “She’s a jewel.”

The Pilot finally caught up with Marilyn herself at the  home she shares with Ray, whom she calls “Papa.” An upright piano dominates the living room. Miniature trains, lots of them, many handmade by Ray, are proudly displayed on shelves. Two cats, one orange and fluffy, the other, black, white and large, greet visitors. Marilyn immediately begins deflecting the reporter’s questions by telling a story about how Ray saved the life of the black and white cat.

“Papa loves animals – we both do,” she said.

It was tough getting Marilyn to talk about herself, but finally she relented, revealing she was born in Moline, Ill., on Dec. 11, 1928, became a registered nurse, and worked in nursing for 42 years before retiring. Her career took her to Burlingame, Calif., where she met Ray in 1980. They married two years later, and have lived in Brookings for the past decade and a half.

Love may have bloomed relatively late in Marilyn’s life – she said she was too busy with work to think about dating – but when it finally blossomed, it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

“Ray is a rose. God gave me roses in him,” she said.

He has a kind heart, makes her laugh a lot, and regularly plays the piano for her, she said. When the reporter asked him to play something, he happily obliged.

As he sat on the bench playing Marilyn’s favorite song, “Somewhere My Love,” (Lara’s theme from the film “Dr. Zhivago”) she draped an arm around his shoulders and swayed along dreamily to the tune, with her cheek close to his. Then he played “Love,” and she sang the words to him as if she truly meant them – as if no one else were in the room – as if the two of them were starry-eyed teens just discovering the greatest thing on earth.

After the performance, Marilyn gazed at Ray and said quietly, “When he plays, it kind of bothers me to know some day I won’t have it.” Her voice caught, and she teared up.

Then she smiled and said to him, “You are tender.”

Ray was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada on Sept. 30, 1925. He attempted a professional singing career at 19, almost became a priest, moved to the U.S. in 1959 and was sworn in as an American citizen five years later. He didn’t start playing the piano until age 40, after becoming well established in his career as a bus driver. For many years, he has been doing good deeds through the Knights of Columbus, and by playing piano and entertaining as a comedian and a Santa Claus impersonator – for no charge – at various care homes, senior centers and other places, in Brookings, Crescent City, and beyond.

“Both of us are very grateful to our Lord for what he has given us,” Marilyn said, “so that we’re not only able to take care of ourselves, but can help others. It’s thanks to the graces he has given us – and the good health – that we can do what we do.”

“Her intentions are deep,” Ray said. “It’s God’s love and care that we’re giving, not our own. ... I believe that for anyone – when you truly try to help – it’s through the love of God that he gives you.”

That’s where this story was going to end, until a few days later, when Marilyn dropped by the Pilot newsroom.

“I want to surprise Papa,” she said, “that’s why I came here to see you, so he wouldn’t know. Can you put this in your story? I know you don’t have a lot of space in the paper, so maybe you can cut out something about me, so there’s room for him.

“Papa makes a loaf of bread in his bread machine every week for someone – maybe someone elderly or someone who looks sort of down, or someone who has done something special. Over the holidays, he made more than a dozen.

“He’s been doing it regularly for the past year and a half, and never misses. He does it all by himself, except I buy the flour and things. He’s so sweet.”