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Cornelia Corbett wins Citizen of the Year award

When the Tampa Metro Civitan Club honored Cornelia Corbett with its prestigious Citizen of the Year award on Monday, Mayor Pam Iorio was one of the first to stand and applaud.

The irony was lost on few attending the Governor's Day Luncheon at the Florida State Fair, including Iorio, who sat just left of the podium on a dais filled with dignitaries.

Corbett earned the honor thanks largely to her longtime commitment to the Child Abuse Council and, more recently, the deft guidance she used to help the new Tampa Museum of Art navigate tumultuous waters to become a reality.

"I think the art museum was probably my biggest challenge," Corbett said. "And the woman next to me on my left knows it all too well, but we've come out smiling and with a great, great museum."

The challenge came from a clash between Corbett and the board, who backed an elaborate design by esteemed architect Rafael Vinoly, and Iorio, who sought a more financially conservative plan and a Curtis Hixon Park open to scenic vistas of the Hillsborough River.

It could have been so easy for Corbett, who became the museum's chairwoman in 2003 just months before Iorio won election, to abandon ship and write off the museum as a lost cause.

Friends and family kept using one word to explain why she stayed the course: tenacity.

"That's because she is tenacious," Iorio said. "There were times when we had some real differences about the direction of the museum, but I think what's important is not the differences but whether you're able to work together to resolve those differences.

"I have a lot of respect for her."

Today, the Tampa Museum of Art sparkles on the river next to the park. It drew raves and attracted nearly 3,000 visitors during its grand opening this past weekend.

The attendees who mattered most to Corbett were the children she watched mold clay and create works of art out of blank sheets of paper.

"Its something that parents and children can share together and tell stories about," Corbett said. "I think it's that connection and what the arts can speak about."

Those who know Corbett best won't be surprised to hear her cite children as a motivating factor. Her well-known civic roles over the years include being co-owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team, but friend Liz Kennedy, who introduced Corbett, explained that she began her career as a social worker in her native New York.

"She would go into tough neighborhoods, scary to most of us," Kennedy said, "and rescue children, sometimes having to climb up fire escapes, enter through a window, confront abusive parents and then comfort and care for hurt children."

Corbett joins an impressive list of winners that dates back to 1927 and reads like a who's who of city pioneers, including Peter O. Knight, Howard Frankland and Doyle E. Carlton. Dick Corbett said his wife earned a spot among those luminaries because she believes she can always achieve.

"What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" Dick Corbett said. "That summarizes Cornelia."

And what would we do without outstanding citizens like Corbett, who continue to enrich our community?

That's all I'm saying.

Cornelia Corbett wins Citizen of the Year award 02/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 12:02am]

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