Crafting a Legacy
Buckner still sharing his passions in retirement
From The Ichabod - Spring 2017
Classical music from a dusty Bose stereo usually accompanies John Buckner as he turns wood in his garage.
Music and woodworking have been prominent in the life of the retired long time Washburn music professor, but woodworking has become his favored craft. It’s what he shares with students at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, or at workshops throughout the region. An only child and now with no living family, Buckner, 83, has always enjoyed sharing his skills and passions with younger generations.
Buckner grew up on a farm near Ash Grove, Missouri, and learned to play piano at age four and to turn wood at seven. He taught and directed the band at Lincoln (Kansas) High School in the 1960s. He got to know and keep in touch with many of his students.
“Anytime two of my band students would get married, I would make them a clock,” he said. Some of the clocks contained salvaged wood and glass from the high school’s old windows.
He started at Washburn in 1970, and taught conducting, music education and music appreciation.
“I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the challenge of these kids who were daring me to make them enjoy classical music,” he said.
He made a point to memorize everyone’s name the first week because he believes there’s nothing more important to anybody, especially a young person, than their name. Stephanie Kocher, b music ’95, remembered how positive and caring he was.
“Once in class, my friend was asking a lot of questions,” Kocher said. “He told her, ‘you’re going to be a good teacher. You’re asking questions and thinking through things.’”
Kocher and her husband, C.J. Kocher, b music ’95, teach music at the University of South Dakota. She brought her two sons to a workshop Buckner hosted in her area last year, and was glad her children, 11 and 13 at the time, got to see the man who influenced their parents.
“He had the same energy, smile and joy he always brought. He loves working with young people,” she said. Her sons made magic wands, and one of them brought his wand to church the next day to show it off.
Buckner retired from Washburn in 1993, and was visiting a former colleague in a retirement community in North Newton when he decided it would be a good place for him. Though Bethel and much of the community is Mennonite, Buckner always feels welcome.
“I’m a total anomaly in a Mennonite community where family is the whole essence of things,” he said. “I have absolutely none of that to talk about. That makes no difference. The community is wonderfully accepting.”
Buckner works with Bethel students as wood turning apprentices, and they sell pieces during the holiday season at Mojos, a coffee shop on campus where regulars call him Dr. B. Last year, they made a good amount selling things like pens, spinning tops and kitchen items, but he’s never wanted to make wood turning his vocation.
“I do it because I like to do it. I wake up every morning and think, ‘goody! I get to turn wood today.’”
Buckner is always looking for interesting pieces of wood like the walnut cut from his family farm before he was born or the cherry he found salvaged from Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia.
“I hoard wood like Midas hoarded gold,” he said. “The thing I like most about wood turning is making things out of woods with histories, and equally, making things out of woods that have meaning to people. Someone will bring me a windowsill out of grandpa’s old house and ask if I can make something out of it. Then they have this thing that’s really meaningful to them.”
Buckner works from lathes crammed into his one-car garage along with saws, shaping tools, blocks, sand paper, wood finishes and other chemicals. To work in nature, he keeps a lathe in the back of his yellow Dodge Nitro – an immodest vehicle he chose to stand out among the similar houses in his community.
He has spent his life passing his trades onto younger generations, and some of his work will live on longer than he and his students. He’s also leaving a legacy for Washburn with a gift in his estate plan to fund campus beautification projects.
“I would like to see my legacy used for something that would benefit the whole Washburn campus because of the fun I had working with non-music majors,” Buckner said. “My idea is to make the campus an even more pleasant place for everybody.”