Finding the bright spot: Community rallies behind DCS teacher of the year John Buford amid cancer diagnosis

Published 12:41 pm Monday, December 11, 2023

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After announcing his acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis on September 11, John Buford has received a myriad of support from the Dare County community. After years of giving his time and sharing his gifts of musicality and charisma with students all across the county, and continually volunteering himself to better those he was surrounded by, Buford is now the recipient of the love he has so willingly shared.

The Dare County Schools (DCS) teacher of the year shared that he is used to being on the other side of the fundraising efforts. Not only has Buford been teaching/directing for over 30 years, he has also had a hand in numerous philanthropic endeavors within the Outer Banks community. The First Flight High School music teacher has led many community performances, and has taken part in massive fundraising campaigns such as the $3 million fundraiser that followed the devastating Lost Colony costume shop fire back in 2007. Through the years, Buford has met and maintained great relationships with countless community members, who have now chosen to return the favor.

“It was overwhelming,” the music teacher said in regard to the cards and letters he received while in the hospital at Duke University receiving treatment. He claimed that the cards from students, faculty and friends covered the hospital room walls from floor to ceiling. Tubs of cookies and cakes have found their way to his doorstep, and fundraising has been in full swing across First Flight Schools to help support Buford.

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Terry Wingenroth, data manager at First Flight Middle School, is a longtime friend and colleague who has helped to organize fundraising efforts across the school. Their fall concert included raffles and pizza sales that raised $10,000 in John’s name. T-shirts are being sold to aid medical bills, and “Bowtie Tuesdays” have become a staple at the school in honor of Mr. Buford. The library also hosts a card-writing station for students to make cards for John and his caregivers.

“As it pertains to school and these kids, John’s very passionate about music and teaching and it’s really contagious. He always has a positive attitude in the classroom and through this cancer journey,” Wingenroth said. “The kids pick up on that and enjoy being in his class, and he’s very kind to them.” She added that she would do “anything for him” and all of these fundraising programs have been a big group effort.

Buford’s passion for teaching has made a lasting impact on many students over the years. Mary Williams, a junior at First Flight High School, shared that she has been learning from Mr. Buford since she was young, and he is one of the biggest reasons why she has fallen in love with theatre. “In the classroom, he’s always had such a positive attitude. It’s the class that you look forward to the most; choir is like a family.”

Williams’ mother, Paulette Benz, said Buford has really made a lasting impression on her daughter. “He’s just been a huge influence on Mary. He’s helped me raise Mary. I attribute a lot of her character and her passion to John.” Williams added, “He is the most humble man … he puts so much work into whatever he does … he’s the teacher you can go to and talk about anything with and he’ll listen. Being around him brings so much joy to your day.”

Buford received his degree in music education and a masters in music from Morehead State University in Kentucky, where he met his husband, Carl Curnutte III, while directing a musical. After directing several church choirs early on in his career post-college, the music teacher felt “unfulfilled” and decided to go back to what he had loved all along: teaching. John and Carl settled down on Roanoke Island in 2005, when John first started teaching at First Flight Elementary School. He then transferred to FFMS in 2016, the same year he became a national board-certified teacher.

College friend Daniel Stockton reconnected with Buford after both had pursued careers outside of Kentucky. Stockton has done what he can to share support from across the ocean. “I started a GoFundMe [for John] because I know what it’s like in the states.” Stockton lives in England and is planning a trip to America in January to visit John and Carl. “He’s done great things for the kids he teaches … he’s a good soul.”

Another GoFundMe campaign was started by Kill Devil Hills resident Alison Fulcher, who wrote: “John is a beloved member of the OBX community. He inspires students daily, and is part of the foundation of the musical scene on the OBX, as a long-time director, singer and pianist. John has started musical adventures for many kiddos and adults alike. Please consider donating to someone who has helped to enrich the entire Outer Banks through his kindness, wisdom and talent. We are with you, John.”

Buford refers to himself as a “born again teacher,” due to the fact that he changed career courses for a year and took on the role of marketing specialist with The Outer Banks Hospital (OBH). Tess Judge, board chair of OBH and development council, has been a longtime friend of Buford’s. “It’s been so heartfelt the way the community has reached out and supported John, and that speaks to his character.” Judge noted how difficult it is to navigate cancer treatment and how a sense of normalcy is much needed through the journey. “Because of The Outer Banks Hospital, John was able to have whatever testing done that he needed here at home. They would coordinate with the doctors at Duke.”

The cancer warrior is now waiting on the next steps regarding a transplant, which would involve three to four months spent living close by to Duke. One of John’s siblings will most likely be his transplant donor, and Curnutte his full-time caretaker. Both have received immense support from their coworkers, families and friends during this time, and Buford still wears his smile proudly, while taking it one day at a time.

“I’m in a positive place with it all, but of course it’s not easy to rest in between the cracks not knowing which way we’re going.” The FFHS teacher added, “I feel like [FFES] was all about positive reinforcement; that just fits me like a glove. I feel like, in a way, it’s reinforced my own positive attitude … I wouldn’t know any other way to be. We have to look on the best side of everything, and try to find the bright spot.”