James Percival Cornette, university president and writer, was born in Charleston, Mississippi, on November 17, 1908. He spent most of his early years in Kentucky and graduated from Russellville High School. After completing his baccalaureate degree at Kentucky Wesleyan in 1929, he earned his master's degree from the University of Virginia in 1930, and his Ph.D. from George Peabody College for Teachers in 1938. He began his academic career as a teacher and coach in Clark County, Kentucky, and later taught at the high school in Mattoon, Crittenden County. From there he went on to teach at Western Kentucky State College (now Western Kentucky University) in Bowling Green as an associate professor of English for fourteen years before moving to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he served as an academic dean. He married Mary Elizabeth Lawson on February 26, 1930, and they had three sons.
In January 1948 Cornette moved to Canyon to assume the duties of executive vice president and intern at West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M University), and on October 2 he succeeded Joseph A. Hill as president of that institution. At a time when the concept of regional private support was unknown, Cornette immediately set out to expand the college into a "state-funded, regionally-endowed" university dependent on area contributions for its "niceties." During his twenty-five years as president the Kilgore Research Center was established on campus, and the Nance Ranch, site of various agricultural programs, was begun east of Canyon. Every building on campus was either constructed or renovated, and many programs were launched and expanded. Cornette expanded the athletic program and also helped start a financial-aid program for students.
He was a member of the National Education Association, the Texas State Teachers' Association, Rotary International, and Phi Kappa Delta. He served as president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, chaired that organization's National Committee on Legislation, and was on the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. He was also a president of the Council of Presidents of Texas Senior Colleges. In 1962 Cornette was named "Man of the Year" by the Amarillo Globe-News for his contributions to the Panhandle area.
He was the author of A Biography of John Henry Clagett (1938) and A History of the Western Kentucky State College (1941); with A. L. Cross he coauthored the Modern Language Handbooks, a series of English textbooks for grades five through eight. He published numerous articles and wrote more than forty television programs on literary subjects, especially his favorite poet, Robert Frost. His dream of university status for West Texas State College came true in the fall of 1963. By the time he stepped down in 1973 the university's enrollment had increased from 1,300 to nearly 8,000. After his retirement Cornette served a year as chancellor and then retired as president emeritus. The new university library, completed in 1973, was named in his honor.
Cornette was a member of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and served as its president from 1963 to 1965. In 1965 he and his wife, who had studied art, opened the Canyon Art Gallery near the university campus. Cornette was a director of the Amarillo Area Foundation and a trustee of High Plains Baptist Hospital. He was a Baptist, a Mason, and a president of the Llano Estacado Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He died at High Plains Baptist Hospital in Amarillo on November 16, 1986, and was buried in Dreamland Cemetery in Canyon.