Waubonsie Valley community mourns unexpected death of orchestra teacher
John "Will" Burck greeted every student who walked into his classroom with a fist bump and a warm smile.
The longtime orchestra instructor loved to crack jokes about the viola -- his instrument of choice -- and he had an instinct for lightening the mood and serving as a calming force whenever a student, colleague or friend seemed stressed.
He exuded school spirit and epitomized a community teacher, living mere blocks from Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, school officials said. And that's why his presence in the classroom, in the hallways and in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 has been so greatly missed since his unexpected death April 1 at age 55.
"He really was someone who cared about his students very much and cared about them as people," said Mark Duker, chairman of Waubonsie Valley's fine arts department. "It was important to him that people were happy, that they were kind to each other, that they were just enjoying life. I'd say a lot of what he did day to day was guided by that."
To honor his memory, Burck's family and music education colleagues launched a memorial scholarship fund with the intention of recognizing a senior each year who has demonstrated dedication and service to the school's music department.
Contributions also could go toward purchasing a set of string instruments to be loaned to orchestra students in need, Duker said.
An Iowa native and proud Hawkeye, Burck studied viola and music education at the University of Iowa before starting his career as a middle school orchestra teacher in Davenport. He spent a year working at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, then taught middle school for six years in Kenosha, Wisconsin, before he was hired in Indian Prairie in 1998.
Burck, who holds master's degrees in music education and educational leadership, taught at Crone Middle School in Naperville until he moved to Waubonsie Valley nearly 20 years ago. He was the assistant chess coach and served four years as the fine arts department chairman -- a role he happily handed over to Duker in 2013 so he could get back to full-time teaching, his successor said.
His passion for music education was evident, senior orchestra student Johnny Bizon said, and he had a way of making every class fun, yet productive.
"I will never forget how awesome of a teacher and how incredible of a person he was," said Bizon, who has known Burck since middle school and credits him for his progress as a cellist. "I'm speaking for the whole orchestra. Everyone loved him. He was the kindest and most wholehearted person I had ever met."
Burck's death was shocking to the Waubonsie Valley and Indian Prairie community, in which he and his family have been deeply integrated, Principal Jason Stipp said. His two oldest kids, Emma and Ethan, are Waubonsie Valley graduates, and his youngest, Joe, is a senior. His wife, Andrea, teaches music in District 204 at Georgetown Elementary School.
Burck was a devoted family man, a car enthusiast, a Lego hobbyist and an avid rider of motorcycles and bicycles, according to his obituary. He spent summers teaching at fine arts camps, most recently in Alaska, and was known for recruiting friends and loved ones to participate with him in a cross-Iowa bicycle ride, RAGBRAI.
He was curious and attentive and eager to learn something new, colleagues say, qualities he passed on to students regardless of whether they were in orchestra. He celebrated their successes and encouraged them to learn from their failures, and he went out of his way to make them feel seen and heard.
"Mr. Burck just had a huge zest for life," Stipp said. "He was very aware of other people and wanted to do good by other people."
A public celebration of Burck's life is planned for this spring, the obituary says. Donations can be made to the memorial scholarship fund at www.wvhsmusic.org/burck-scholarship-information.html.