The reaction is universal: They adore him, from those who knew him 30 years ago to those who just met him last year.
The Baker Years
“He’s a unicorn of a man,” were the first words Kristin Isenberg says about Acton. She runs the Facebook group Mr. John Acton’s Baker Bobcat “Kids” 1950’s – 1993, which connects hundreds of Baker students from the four decades he served as principal of the school until his retirement in 1993.
“He’s just an amazing person on so many fronts,” she continues. “Everything we learned from him brought us to where we are now in our lives. He taught us leadership and he taught us our value as people. We weren’t students to him: We were people.”
She started the Facebook group in 2015 after she had a chance encounter with Acton and decided to organize a little get-together with him and her old group of friends, just to sit down and share some memories. Some of them couldn’t make it to the first event but wanted very badly to participate, so Isenberg organized a second gathering that ended up being even bigger than the first. As interest continued to grow, she organized a surprise reunion in 2016 with well over 100 former Baker Bobcats in attendance.
To hear Isenberg speak about Acton is not unlike hearing people speak about Fred Rogers — aka Mr. Rogers — who dedicated his life to trying to help every child navigate this difficult world by teaching them essential life lessons so they could grow into emotionally strong and empathetic adults.
Isenberg describes the experience of attending Baker as being “under his hug.”
“We knew we were protected,” says Isenberg, who attended Baker from 1986 to 1988. “When it came right down to it, we knew we were safe. It was an amazing comfort.”
Every day after the final bell, Acton told his students, “Go home; your mother loves you.” If a child was struggling in school but was still managing to do well on a report card, he would personally bring that report card to the student’s home to celebrate. If a child was left behind after school, he would provide a ride home. If a child lost a parent, he would do everything he could to console and offer support.
Isenberg remembers the final thing Acton said to her on her last day of middle school as she and her friends were about to leave: “You guys do me proud.” All these years later, she and the rest of his students still want to make him proud.
A Renaissance Man
In the 26 years since retiring in 1993, Acton has remained busy. He lives in Clarkston and attends Clarkston United Methodist Church, where he made connections with some of the students at Renaissance High School, attending their talent shows and alumni games. Then one day about five years ago, he walked into Christa Fons’ office in her first year as the alternative school’s principal. He’s been an integral part of the Renaissance community ever since.
“He’s a wonderful, caring, loving man,” Fons says. “I always call him my mentor because he knows what’s important for the kids, and that each one of them has value and is important.”
He started the “Friends of Renaissance,” a group of mostly anonymous donors who have raised thousands of dollars over these last few years to support Renaissance. Fons keeps records of how they spend the donations so that she can show Acton the impact he is making, including buying a cot, which any student can also use, for a student with muscular dystrophy to rest on when he gets tired; an emotional support bunny; and other items that give comfort to students dealing with anxiety.
Acton has become a very visible figure at the school, and all the students know and respect him. He attends twice-yearly all-school meetings and speaks to the kids during the assembly.
“When he speaks, you can hear a pin drop, which never happen with our kids,” Fons says.
In one of these assemblies, the students expressed a desire to help out, such as what Acton was doing with the Friends of Renaissance. They decided to put a canister in the front entryway of the school where anyone who wants to donate can throw in some change. One student said that he only had 26 cents, and that became the motto: “26 Cents for Renaissance.” They’ve now raised over $3,000, and that money can be used to help out whichever student needs it.
“He’s like a hero inside that building,” says Shawn Ryan, who just became superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools in 2018 and has known Acton for less than a year. “He’s got this kind of a grandfatherly feel and connection to these students. He’s very interested in them and their lives, and the kids just love him. He makes such a difference in that building.”
Ryan reflected that Acton seems to feel a kinship with the kids who struggle to be successful, and has a way of talking with them that’s supportive but also pushes them a little.
“Even as he transitioned to retirement, that part of him that cares about kids and improving people’s lives never stopped,” Ryan says. “I think he’s found a way for his heart to continue to connect to the next generations moving forward. He’s just an amazing man.”
Ryan honored Acton at last year’s commencements and called him “the angel of Renaissance High School.” Acton was, of course, “flabbergasted” by the gesture, then talked about how Ryan always gives his 26 cents whenever he walks through the school’s doors.
Acton is known for another thing — “healing benches” he builds and donates to anyone he believes might benefit from having one. They originated with his dad, who built one in the 1960s following a tragic family hunting accident.
“Over the years it has come to be called ‘The Healing Bench,’ ” he wrote in a note that accompanied a bench he gave to Fons. “It has no known magical powers, but surely holds up the hope of physical and emotional healing, faith, friendship, goodness, joy, truth, self-discipline, family loyalty, pride, caution, courage, tolerance, financial stability, inspiration, gratitude, forgiveness, self-esteem, good health, long life, etc.”
They’re of simple construction — just eight pieces of wood and 26 screws. He gave one to Renaissance High School for all the students to enjoy and has also given benches to individual students and staff members — one to a student whose boyfriend died by suicide, another to a 17-year-old with severe autism and one to the school’s longtime “lunch lady” by the students’ request, among others.
“I give them to folks that need healing,” he says, “anyone who asks or folks who ask for someone else. Once a boy said to me, ‘But you don’t know who needs them,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’ So I take them to places that serve the youngsters where they can help themselves.”
An Unassuming Man
For his part, Acton is surprised at the outpouring of wonderful memories and affection, saying, “I only have a great feeling for those schools and those kids.”
In fact, if he’d had his way, he wouldn’t have been interviewed for this article.
“Just do it for others and for the school,” he says. “I kind of disdain the focus on me.”
At 85, he has Parkinson’s disease. He still builds his benches — recently for a former student who is now retiring from Baker and whose husband has multiple sclerosis; a family that just lost their father; and an 8-year-old with leukemia. This is in spite of having what he describes as “shaky hands and a slow gait” now.
His own shop teacher from 60 years ago still helps him assemble the benches — Acton pays him for his labor and also buys the wood, though sometimes people donate wood. He has sent his benches all over the U.S. and even to Europe, at his own expense.
“It’s an expense, but it’s worth it,” he says. “Everybody needs something in life to do. I’m 25 years retired and need something to do.”