Wabash Magazine: An Adventurous Spirit

by Steve Charles

December 15, 2009

He spent his junior year as a Wabash Spanish major studying in Bogota, Colombia; when he was 18 and she was 16, he asked his hometown sweetheart, Caryl, to marry him; he jumped out of a pane for his Green Beret training, and numerous times thereafter; soloed in a single0engine Cessna while serving in Army Special Operations in Panama; was president of a university; and commanded the Psychological Operations Task Force under General Eric Shinseki during NATO’s nation-building efforts in Bosnia.

Of course, he’s tried whitewater rafting and other obligatory outdoor excursions.

And more domestic outings, too. He earned his law degree, then a Ph.D. He was a square dance caller, and he and Caryl were members of the Panama Canal Zone Kickers and drove up the Transcontinental Highway through Central America to a square dancing convention in San Antonio, Texas. 
 
He plays the tuba. 
 
He and Caryl, also Colonel U.S. Army (Retired), make beautiful stained glass windows (John cuts the glass, Caryl does the soldering). And 10 years ago they returned to their hometown of Orange-ville, IL, where they operate, among other things, a dinner theater out of a once-dilapidated Mason’s Lodge they bought, renovated, and now share with the community.
 
It’s a long resume´, and meeting John Buford for the first time at the Michigan City, IN marina, I expect a tall man. Like the actor, Sam Elliott, who played Buford’s Union Army hero namesake in the 1990s film Gettysburg
 
But John Buford is a very fit 5’7”. When he played football as a high school freshman, he weighed 67 pounds. And he wasn’t the kicker. 
 
In his written account of the five-year voyage from Texas to Wisconsin, he notes that he was always the shortest, and often the slowest, on every sports team on which he played.
 
But he never quit.
 
Built small, Buford plays big. 
 
So does his boat. Thirty-five years old and aptly named Folly, the Coronado 27-footer is a pipsqueak of a coastal cruiser, but she’s driven by a diesel engine found on boats twice her size. 
 
“If you’re going to have a motor, you want one big enough to get you out of trouble,” Buford says as he fires it up and we cast off from the slip in Michigan City. That engine also got him into trouble, once, he admits. His propeller snagged an errant tarp in the Harvey Locks near New Orleans, and Folly had to be towed out.
 
“We stopped all the shipping from the Mississippi River coming through those locks,” Buford enthuses over the hum of the Yarman 20 horsepower diesel. 
 
Purchased for $7,500, many times that amount has been poured into Folly since the Bufords bought her. Built as a daysailer, her mast and mainstays have been bolstered, the mast rigging is heavier, all sails replaced, and she’s outfitted as a pocket coastal cruiser, complete with auto helm, a pedestal guard, and a blue canopy that covers Folly’s cockpit for storm protection. 
 
“I guess you could say I have an adventurous spirit,” Buford says when I ask him why he undertook this voyage in a boat he’d only owned for a year, the first boat he’d ever owned.
 
The boat was John’s retirement gift to himself; sailing is something he’d wanted to try since his boyhood days in northwestern Illinois, and Caryl enjoyed learning to sail and sharing dreams of warm, leisurely cruises.
 
“It’s something anyone can do,” he says. “You don’t have to be young, or especially large in stature, or particularly strong. You just have to be willing to learn.”  
 
The Gulf of Mexico out of Corpus Christi was the Bufords’ classroom, where constant winds and rolling seas made for an accelerated curriculum.
 
“If you learn to sail in Corpus Christi, you can sail anywhere,” he says of his days learning the ropes on rented Flying Scots in Corpus Christi Bay. “It’s not unusual to be in 15- to 20-knot winds there. People around here don’t typically go out in that weather. But in Corpus Christi, if you don’t go out in that weather, you’ll never go out at all.”
 
“Most people buy their boats and tie them up in the marina,” Buford says. He was determined that Folly would not be one of them.
 
A quirk of army fate practically guaranteed that. Caryl had been stationed in Corpus Christi at what the couple believed would be her final post before retirement, as a brigade commander in charge of the military shipping in and out of the port. But just after they bought Folly and were planning a slow-paced summer cruise, Caryl received transfer orders to the East Coast.
 
“We had a choice,” Buford recalls. “We could sell the boat or we could have the boat transported. But why not sail her to the East Coast?” 
 
He did just that over the next five summers, with Caryl’s help, crewing companionship from friends and family, and the skills of Quenten Cook—Folly’s co-captain for the first 2,000 miles and whom Buford credits for much of his own sailing ability.
 
“I was 58, in reasonable health,” he recalls. “I was looking for at least one more grand adventure and figured this could be a good one.”
 
The sun lurks below the horizon on a windy July morning as we sail out of the Michigan City marina, and Buford smiles as the breakwater beacon disappears behind us. (Did I mention that John likes to get an early start?) With the help of Jack Spurway ’69, a fellow sailing enthusiast and Buford’s volunteer crew for the Charlevoix, Michigan to Wisconsin leg of the trip, he raises and trims the mainsail, sets his course on the GPS and throttles up the diesel as the little boat begins the gentle up-and-down motion we’ll be dancing with for the next 12 hours heading north-northwest toward Wisconsin.
 
“The worst weather we ran into on the whole trip was off the coast of Georgia,” he calls out over the hum and fumes of the diesel. “Waterspouts were developing all around us, five or six that we could see. We were in five-foot rollers, and I went down to pick up my jacket and saw water pouring in through the locker.”
 
Approaching hurricanes and the threat of bad weather were an apt theme of the entire voyage; the outwardly optimistic Buford says his alter ego is the Lil’ Abner cartoon strip character Joe Btfsplk, a little guy with a black cloud over his head and the world’s biggest jinx.
 
“I learned through a series of farm injuries and other mishaps that when I’m involved something bad is likely to happen,” he says. “So I’ve become conservative about risking my neck, or anyone else’s.”
 
While he encountered plenty of mechanical delays and his share of bad weather, he avoided major calamities (by only a few feet, in a near-collision with a fishing boat near Atlantic City) and the worst weather was always a step behind him.
 
We’re sailing through two-foot seas when the rising sun illuminates what at first appears to be a dusty mirage hovering over the miles of blue water to the west. Through my telephoto lens, the phantom becomes the distant Chicago skyline. I admit to Buford that it’s comforting to be in site of the shore again. John laughs.
 
“Actually, you’re only 150 feet from land,” he says, as Spurway checks the depth finder.
 
“165 feet,” Jack grins. “Straight down.”
 
Buford is already planning his next “grand adventure.” 
 
He says part of the plan for inviting me aboard this final day of his epic cruise is to introduce me to the pleasures of sailing. He wants to know if Wabash alumni would be interested in a working sailing vacation aboard a “tall ship” schooner. As the seas calm to less than a foot and the sun comes out from beyond, Buford suggests I take one of the cockpit cushions to the base of the mast and enjoy the ride from there.
 
“The best seat in the house,” he promises. I clamber over the top between ropes and railing on the nodding boat, hoping I can get there without pitching forward into the lake. 
 
But the moment I lay back on that cushion, the whole scene changes. 
 
The diesel chatter is replaced by the whoosh of the bow cutting through the waves. Cumulus clouds scud across the sun above the mainsail, changing the light on the water from gray to silver to blue every few moments. The rigging sings in the wind, tapping the mast in rhythm with the rise and fall of the boat, while every now and then a light spray of fresh water mists over me. Soon, against my better judgment, I fall asleep, waking to a nearly cloudless sky, unsure of the time, of where I am, or how I got so incredibly relaxed.
 
John comes up and we talk awhile about all sorts of things, while staring out at the water, its changing moods and light. It’s mesmerizing. As Jack says later, the same feeling you get staring into campfire coals at night. The conversation waxes and wanes, the world’s troubles fall away, and there’s a stillness inside of me that I’d almost forgotten could be there. 
 
All of this in a 10-knot wind on a boat still 10 miles off shore, 165 feet “above” the nearest land. How can such an alien place feel so much like home?
 
“I think you’ve gotten a taste of what this is all about,” John says as we crawl back to the cockpit. The conversations and comfortable silences continue, and soon Jack spots the marina, North Point, where we’ll find Folly’s new place to rest, unload the boat, and begin the mad dash through Chicago and back to Crawfordsville. John heads to Orangeville to begin rehearsal on the next play at his dinner theater.
 
Folly’s 4,650-mile journey ends unceremoniously, the only onlooker an old fisherman relaxing with a beer in a yellowed canvas deck chair. He notices the lettering on the sailboat’s stern as John backs her into the slip: Folly, Corpus Christi, TX. 
 
“You’ve come a long way from home,” he says.
 
Buford smiles, “Actually, I’m on my way there right now.” 
 
Two months later on a warm, dry, late- summer evening in Orangeville, Buford is wearing a Victorian-era suit, sporting a beard, and welcoming guests to “Murdered to Death,” the play he and the Mighty Richland Players are staging in the Buford’s Masonic Lodge/IOOF Hall.
 
“I didn’t get into this to start a dinner theater,” he explains. “I was looking for a way to save the building, and a dinner theater was the way to do it.”
 
The Lodge is one of three buildings John and Caryl bought when they moved back to Orangeville in 1999. This is the village where they met in grade school, where they shared a hymnal in the Evangelical United Brethren Church their parents attended, where Caryl played French horn and John played bass drum in the junior high school band, the village where Caryl’s father was the only dentist. 
 
As kids they rode bikes past the Central House Hotel where they now live. Next door is the bank building where John’s father and mother worked when he was a boy. John and Caryl bought and restored it, John uses it for music rehearsals, and a meticulously designed three-room apartment and fitness room is in the basement.
 
Thanks to John, all three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 
 
The Bufords headed efforts this year to obtain and install a 12-foot tall village clock —John has become a master of soliciting grants and funding for Orangeville.
 
He credits his Army officer’s training and his doctorate work in public policy. 
 
“It’s all about change and being a change agent,” Buford says. “In the Army, we called it ‘improving your foxhole.’ You were there to improve the situation, not to watch the river flow by. Sometimes your ideas worked, sometimes they didn’t, but if you improved it, you got a successful officer efficiency report.”
 
None of the improvements in Orange-ville are more emblematic of what two determined people can get done in a place they love than the dinner theater and the Masonic Lodge which houses it. 
 
Caryl’s hand is evident in each of the three buildings the couple owns; she’s skilled at detail and finish work, epitomized by the ceiling of the Masonic Lodge, now replastered and painted as a night sky. She hand-painted every star.
 
John has found a way to involve all sorts of people and groups in the Mighty Richland Players (named for the lovely but decidedly un-mighty Richland Creek that flows through town). The high school art, shop, band, and choral teachers all have projects or send students. Flower decorations are donated by the Broken Barn Gift and Floral Shop, and the delicious dessert is from Teresa Shuman, a caterer in town. Some actors are from Orangeville (one went to grade school with John and Caryl), some attend the local community college. Two were “shanghaied” (their words) by John from the artsy tourist mecca of Galena 45 miles down the road. 
 
For this winter’s annual Christmas madrigal, the Players will join students at the high school for a fundraiser, then students will join the Players at the Lodge for their own production.
 
But tonight’s production is a comedy, and by curtain time all but four of the 64 seats are filled. Many of the guests hail from nearby towns, but several have come from farther away, John notes. The theater’s reputation is extending its reach.
 
The audience laughs at all the right times. At intermission, guests are thrilled when dessert is served by the actors. 
 
In the final act, one scene brings giggles from a little girl in the audience, the sister of the actor delivering the line. Her giddy enjoyment of her brother’s performance moves the rest of the audience to laughter, and the little girl blushes. In a room full of older adults, it’s the laughter of a child that brings the biggest smile.
 
When it’s all over, actors exit through the hall and form a receiving line, thank the guests for coming, and receive well-earned praise. It’s not unlike the mix of family, friends, and admirers that gather in the Ball Theater lobby after Wabash Theater performances. 
 
But this party is outdoors in the streets of Orangeville, the ending of a perfect late summer day. It would have been a beautiful day for sailing, in fact. The sort of day that once caused Buford to bemoan the many boats sitting idle in a marina. 
 
More than two hours away at North Point, Folly is resting in her slip. Her captain is shaking hands with his brother-in-law, then hugging his sister-in-law’s 90-year-old mother, who won a bouquet of flowers at tonight’s performance for being the oldest person in the house. There’s laughter and the racket of a lively community at 10 p.m. in a village of 800 people in the supposedly declining rural Midwest.
 
The grandest adventure in John and Caryl Buford’s lives may be right here where they began.
 
Photos
(upper right): John Buford ’69 at the helm of Folly on Lake Michigan during the final leg of his 4,650-mile voyage from Corpus Christi to Winthrop Harbor, IL.
 
(lower right): Practicing tuba in the bank in which his parents once worked (and he now owns), John prepares for the 2009 Christmas madrigal.

 


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