Updated: May 25, 2013 6:45AM
It may not be as easy to find a place in your heart for Cornelius “Cornbread” German as it was for Hadiya Pendleton, two 15-year-old Chicago kids bound together by the common fate of being shot dead within walking distance of President Barack Obama’s home.
Hadiya was the high-achieving honor student from a middle class, church-going family whose light-up-the-room smile shone through from the grave.
Cornelius was a struggling young man previously expelled from elementary school for fighting, a kid raised in poverty who hung with the wrong crowd and met his demise at a backyard dice game.
That’s why Cornelius’ death Monday night is a test for this city. It’s a test of our commitment to Hadiya Pendleton’s memory, a test of our determination to stop the violence, and as such, you might even say it’s a test of character.
It’s one thing to be sympathetic when a beautiful and innocent young girl with a promising future who dies from a bullet, but quite another to take an interest in the at-risk problem youth who are more commonly the victims of street violence.
The police say Cornelius was affiliated with a street gang. His parents, Timika Rutledge and Ronald German, deny he was a gang member, but admit that he hung with a rough, older crowd.
Either way, it shouldn’t matter.
“He was somebody’s baby,” Rutledge told me Tuesday across the kitchen table in the family’s apartment at 51st and Morgan. “Just like she was somebody’s baby, he was somebody’s baby.”
Cornelius was her baby, the youngest of three boys and one girl, and she can sing his praises like any mother.
“He was smart. He was a comedian. He was handsome. He was charismatic,” Rutledge said between stirring a pot of oatmeal. “He had a smile to light up a room.”
Unlike Hadiya, though, there was no smile on the photos Cornelius left behind, the scowl taking its place a hint of a very different childhood from hers.
“The truth is he had problems,” Rutledge said.
Cornelius was kicked out of Reavis Elementary School for “fighting and a bad attitude,” she said. As a result, he was required to spend seventh and eighth grade and part of his freshman year at an alternative school for students with behavior problems.
Cornelius only recently had transitioned into Kenwood Academy, but was having trouble there as well, his mother said.
“He would go [to school] some days, and some days he wouldn’t,” German, the father, explained.
They assume he was in class Monday because the school didn’t call to report him absent, as it normally would.
“[Cornelius] had a problem with authority figures,” said his mother, adding, “He was starting to calm down.”
“He was a hothead if you talked to him wrong, if you picked on him,” agreed his father as he finished off the last of a Newport cigarette. “He had slowed that down some.”
Cornelius also had at least one brush with the law, his mother said, an arrest for allegedly stealing a cell phone.
A judge ordered him to perform community service with an anti-violence program run by the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, near his home.
When I called there to learn more about Cornelius, they told me he showed up so infrequently that nobody had any information about him.
German, 61, once worked as a CTA motorman but said he was fired for altercations with a passenger and a co-worker. He now receives disability.
Rutledge, 42, said she recently received a degree from Everest College as a medical tech and is looking for a job. She and German have been together for 22 years, and “yes, we’re married,” she volunteered.
It was German who said he’d given Cornelius the nickname of Cornbread as an infant for a voracious appetite that seemed to soak up the formula from his baby bottles.
German was struggling Tuesday with the fact his son had called him for a ride home at 8 p.m. but he hadn’t felt like going then and told him to stay put. It wasn’t until 9:15 that German and his wife went to collect him, and by then, it turned out he had drifted off to watch the dice game.
By the time they tracked him down, they reckon they arrived two minutes too late.
“He was such a little joker that I dreamed about him last night,” his father said. “He said he wasn’t dead, that it was just a trick. Then I woke up and realized it was just a nightmare.”
These killings will continue to be a nightmare for all of Chicago until we realize that the lives — and deaths — of those like Cornelius German are important, too.