John Burton, the longtime educator and former superintendent of Hillsboro City Schools who passed away last Friday at 83, was known by countless students as a caring, involved mentor who knew almost every student by name.
But to people from Lynchburg who grew up with him, Burton was much more than that – a dedicated friend who overcame substantial hardships, served as a surrogate father to his many siblings, helped classmates make it through school, and earned the respect of everyone in town. For them, Burton’s legacy transcends mere biography and represents a triumph of the human spirit.
Burton was the second-born of 11 siblings. His youngest brother, Jamie – more than two decades younger — said his older brother was a surrogate father.
“He filled in the kinks and holes with positive ideas that my dad wasn’t capable of doing,” said Jamie. “He would explain opportunities that I didn’t understand.” He said his brother reminded him of his grandfather, also named John, who “was a wise man.” He said both his grandfather and his brother were “slow to get angry.”
Jamie said his brother would offer advice to all his siblings “if you reached out to him,” but would not criticize them if they ignored his advice. He added, “In many ways, he was my patriarch.”
Jamie recalls spending time with John, sometimes staying overnight with him, when his brother was principal at Fairfield in Leesburg. He said on Saturdays, if John had work to do, he would turn on the lights over one half of the Leesburg gymnasium so Jamie could shoot basketballs. Later, John would check the dirt on Jamie’s fingertips to make sure he had been releasing the ball correctly.
Jamie was aware of the respect people had for his brother. He said he never resented being known or introduced primarily as “John’s brother.”
“It never bothered me, or my other brothers and sisters,” said Jamie. “It was a source of pride.”
Clo Davis grew up in Lynchburg as Clo Hopkins, and went through school with Burton, graduating in the same class. She and others knew the role he assumed within his family dynamic.
“He was the glue,” said Davis, adding that Burton’s kindness was extraordinary. “I doubt he ever hurt anybody his entire life,” she said.
But even though he came from the humblest and most difficult of circumstances, “he rose above that to the highest levels.” She said Burton was “a true academic.”
After Davis retired as principal at Lynchburg-Clay, Burton contacted her to offer her a job supervising student teachers at Wilmington College.
“It was a great job, and great working with John, of course,” said Davis.
Nancy Abernathy, who also grew up in Lynchburg as Nancy Jo Murphy, also went through school with Burton and graduated with him. She recalls Burton’s humble beginnings and the fact that he always worked while growing up, including at Woody Williams’ meat market in Lynchburg.
“He was a wonderful person,” Abernathy said. “He always called me ‘Murph’ or ‘Jo.’ He was a friend to everybody.”
She said that when classmates had difficulty understanding certain subjects in high school, “John would get up and explain what was on the board.” She said Burton was beloved and admired around town, not only because people knew the difficulties he overcame, but because, “You could always depend on him.”
Bud Henderson was one of Burton’s closest friends from boyhood. “We were always together,” he said. As boys, they were often dropped off at Crosley Field in Cincinnati for a Reds game, and picked up several hours later.
“You wouldn’t do that today,” said Henderson. He said his parents liked John being around “to keep me out of trouble.” He said the late Bill Roush, a former coach (and later, superintendent) at Lynchburg was an important, positive influence on Burton.
Henderson said that in school, Burton was a rare combination – the best student, the best athlete, and the nicest guy.
Henderson said one of Burton’s most noticeable attributes through the years was his humility.
“He never started a sentence with ‘I,’” said Henderson. “It was always, ‘we,’ or ‘my staff.’ He was just that kind of guy.”
Henderson said that because of their friendship and the fact that their careers paralleled each other in the field of education, he and Burton always stayed in touch. He said he visited Burton recently in the hospital, and even though Burton suffered from brain cancer, “his mind was still sharp.” He said they played a game of “sports trivia,” as they did as kids, and Burton could still recall the starting five of the 1960 Ohio State championship basketball team.
According to a detailed obituary of Burton from the Brucker & Kishler Funeral Home in Newark, “As an outstanding high school basketball player, he held for decades the county record for most points scored (45) during a game prior to the 3 point shot.” He later played on many semi-professional softball and baseball teams, and was asked to try out for the Cincinnati Reds.
Clo Davis and Bud Henderson both recall Burton’s 45-point game, although Davis remembers the opponent as Sinking Spring, while Henderson believes the scoring outburst came against Marshall. Henderson joked that the discrepancy could be because everyone is now in their 80s.
Burton married the former Wilma Skaggs on Nov. 10, 1956. According to his obituary, “On their first date he tells the story that the only time he heard an audible voice from God was when telling him this woman is to be your wife and mother of your children.” The newlyweds lived over a hardware store while John went to Wilmington College and Wilma worked for the common pleas judge in Hillsboro. Burton graduated with an education degree from Wilmington College.
“In 1958, he secured his first job at Fairfield High School in Leesburg… While at his tenure in Leesburg, he drove a school bus, directed school plays, taught government, physical education and coached basketball often all in the same year,” according to his obituary.
“After receiving his Master’s degree from Xavier University in 1963, he was named principal at Fairfield High School. In 1968, he become principal at Granville High School where he oversaw the construction of a new high school building he helped open in 1970. In 1971, his public education career continued at Hillsboro City Schools serving as high school principal, elementary principal and the superintendent of schools until his retirement in 1990,” according to his obituary.
Burton “then spent 6 meaningful years serving as a mentor for the juvenile court system. The capstone of his educational career was serving 13 years teaching education classes and overseeing student teachers at Wilmington College where his educational career began.”
Numerous individuals who were students of Burton’s at Hillsboro and Fairfield recalled this week in casual conversations that Burton knew every students’ name, something his brother Jamie said John may have picked up from former Lynchburg superintendent J.J. Wiggins.
Burton is survived by his wife of almost 62 years, Wilma (Skaggs); children Rindy (Bob), Mary Beth (Rob), Brian (Kelly); and grandchildren Jacob (Michelle), Allison (Ryan), Meredith (Kyle), Avery, Blair, Bennett, Grant, Jeb, Vincent, Reece, Maria.
Burton was preceded in death by his sister, Jeanette (Burton) Toenniges, and infant brother, Steven. He is survived by sisters Barb (Ertel), Mary (Hagner), Ruth (Smith) and brothers Marlin, Charles, David, Michael, Milton and James.
According to his obituary, Burton, who lived in Johnstown when he died, “loved reading historical novels, journaling and writing letters to his grandchildren away at school. His greatest joy in retirement was teaching and studying the Bible with his wife and small groups of friends and family.” A memorial service will be held at Spring Hills Baptist Church, 1820 Newark-Granville Rd, Granville, Ohio at 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 14.
Jamie Burton visited his brother just a few days before he passed. He said John told him, “I tried to be the best brother I could be.”
Jamie responded, “You were that, and much more.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.