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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 16, 2009
Dornbush dies at 59, his passion for education lives on
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND John Dornbush was a quiet hero.
As he fought cancer over the last four-and-a-half years, Mr. Dornbush continued his service as a school board member; he continued his work helping university students find financial aid; he continued his commitment to his church, St. Lucy’s in Altamont; and, most of all, he continued his love and caring for friends and family.
He died on July 8, 2009, in the arms of his family. He was 59.
“John had no pretense,” said his wife of 34 years, Mary DiLella Dornbush. “He was upfront.”
Mr. Dornbush actively looked for and somehow found the positive parts of even the most horrendous experiences.
When, as vice president of the school board, he decided to run for re-election last year, he was in the midst of difficult cancer treatments.
Mr. Dornbush said then of the disease, “It gives you a chance to step back and re-assess and figure out what’s important. For me, it’s relationships, and I’m passionate about education…I know it’s going to sound corny, but I believe education for everyone is the only thing that’s going to save this planet.”
Mr. Dornbush had served on the Guilderland School Board since 1999; he was vice president under Richard Weisz, who came on the year after.
“The Guilderland school community has lost a great friend with the passing of John Dornbush,” Mr. Weisz said this week. “Always unassuming and courteous, he was a passionate supporter of children and education. He would challenge us to do the best we could. He’ll be sorely missed.”
Mr. Weisz went on to say, “I’ve always considered him one of my personal champions because he would do what he thought in a quiet way and would continue to do it even when he was ill…He continued to pursue his passion….Maybe in a world that’s all about theatrics, people would overlook him.”
Mr. Dornbush had an interest in seeing that the schools met the needs of each child whether gifted or struggling. He also pushed, along with board member Hy Dubowsky, for more emphasis on technology and on math and science training.
“He had a perspective on technology and the future of education,” said Mr. Weisz. “It’s tragic that both he and Hy who shared that vision are both gone.” Mr. Dubowsky died in March of cancer.
Mr. Weisz concluded of Mr. Dornbush, “He was my vice president last year and, whenever I was trying to figure out a way to handle something and I would seek his counsel, I would respect what he had to say. I’m really going to miss him…He tried to figure out how to do the right thing no matter the circumstances.
“Everyone would listen to him because they knew he had no personal agenda other than doing the right thing. I miss his enthusiasm. I will miss his smile.”
A native of Pearl River, N.Y., Mr. Dornbush was born on Jan. 6, 1950. He was the son of the late Albert C. and Antoinette J. Polcin Dornbush. His father was a research microbiologist at Lederle Laboratory. “He was on the ground floor, in the early ’40s, developing broad spectrum antibiotics,” said Mr. Dornbush of his father. “When he died, I found out he had seven patents and had written dozens of scientific papers…and he did it all with a bachelor’s degree.”
John Dornbush earned both undergraduate and advanced degrees from the University of Albany.
He met the love of his life, Mary DiLella, there as an undergraduate. He was a history major from downstate; she was an English major from central New York.
“We loved doing shows,” said Mrs. Dornbush. “I was a techie. John did some acting. He was on my crew. I like to brag that I taught him how to use power tools.”
When Mr. Dornbush finally got up the nerve to ask her on a date it was on Dec. 8, 1972 they hit it off immediately. “We were definitely attracted to one another,” said Mrs. Dornbush. “That’s all she wrote.”
Although they married when she was 25, Mrs. Dornbush didn’t have her first child until she was 33. “We went to graduate school. We thought we were too poor,” said Mrs. Dornbush. “We were late bloomers. We always said, you can know all the reasons not to have children. But you can’t know the great joy you feel until you do it. All the doubts are gone in a blink.”
Their first son, Stephen, was born in 1983. They lost an infant son, David, two years later. They fought through the grief and had a third son, Eric.
“John was a great dad,” said Mrs. Dornbush, noting that words trivialize his role. “He set a wonderful example for them and loved them deeply. He taught them how to give back. They have a good moral compass because of their Dad.”
Mr. Dornbush also cared deeply about his work, his wife said. “Most of his career, he worked in financial aid,” she said. He worked at his alma mater, the University at Albany, for over 30 years. “John was the history of his office,” said Mrs. Dornbush.
Because he was so familiar with all the complex regulations, he could guide students and their families, often helping them out of a bind, she said.
Mr. Dornbush had a degree in counseling psychology and student development, and practiced what he was taught “He was a student advocate,” said his wife. “It made a difference what he did.” Over the years, Mr. Dornbush received many heartfelt thank-you notes from families he had helped.
At work, he was also a negotiator for the United University Professions. “He knew how to listen and compromise to cut to the quick and get to what was important,” said his wife.
“Bring it on”
As he faced cancer, he cut to the quick, too. He knew what was important life. “John loved life,” said his wife. “He was fighting this illness because he wanted to live.”
In the midst of intense immune therapy at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where her husband endured “horrible side effects,” Mrs. Dornbush recalled, as he faced treatments three times a day, he’d say, “Bring it on.”
Talking about his disease before he died, Mr. Dornbush spoke about it matter-of-factly. “In December of 2004, my wife found a mole on my back that looked funny,” he said. “She said, ‘Go to the doctor,’ which I did. The mole was removed and biopsied and I was told it was a nodular melanoma, which is the bad kind.”
As the cancer spread, he said, “I don’t look at the numbers too much because they’re not good.”
As a listener struggled to find a word to describe his attitude an uncanny combination of courage and nonchalance Mr. Dornbush supplied the word: “It’s acceptance,” he said. “If anything, cancer has helped me realize who I am and what I value. I have a great family. Mary, Stephen, and Eric have sustained me.”
He also talked about a car accident he had been in 12 years ago. “It was a head-on collision,” he said. “I came close to dying, but it wasn’t my time…I learned then how many friends I had. People came out of the woodwork to help me.”
The same thing happened as he battled cancer, his wife said. His longtime friends stood by him and helped.
Mr. Dornbush also relied on his religion. “I’m very spiritual,” he said. “I was raised Catholic and I’m a practicing Catholic but I won’t let my Catholic practice confine me. I see values in all religions. I think they are all simply different ways of looking at God and reality. None of them are perfect, but mostly they’re good.”
Mr. Dornbush smiled as he went on, “I have churches praying for me in Ireland; I have a prayer blanket from my brother’s congregation in Pennsylvania; Peter Golden,” he said, referring to a former school board member, “lit a candle for me at Notre Dame in Paris and he’s Jewish.” Mr. Dornbush chuckled. “You do what you gotta do,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Mary DiLella Dornbush, and his two sons, Stephen and Eric Dornbush, John P. Dornbush is survived by his brothers, Carl Dornbush and his wife, Mary, of Blauvelt, N.Y. and Mark Dornbush and his wife, Denise, of Hanover, Pa.; his stepmother, Carol Dornbush of Pearl River, N.Y.; and several nieces and nephews.
A Mass of Christian Burial was held on Saturday at St. Lucy’s Church in Altamont. Arrangements are by DeMarco-Stone Funeral Home of Guilderland.
Memorial contributions may be made to the John P. Dornbush Scholarship Fund, 6076 State Farm Road, Guilderland NY 12084 or to St. Lucy’s Church, Post Office Box 678, Altamont, NY 12009.