After kicking cancer to the curb, Bill Buchanan felt every new day began as a gift, a benefit, a little something extra.
“I feel like I’m playing with house money,” he’d say. For non-gamblers: That’s a sure bet. Even if you don’t necessarily win, you still can’t lose.
Family – which includes virtually everyone he met, friends said – have united in mourning for the witty, giving and gregarious man who proudly shared passion for his adopted city as director of community development for Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports. Buchanan, 67, died unexpectedly Dec. 22 at a Birmingham hospital, of issues unrelated to cancer.
Social media posts began circulating of a man many called larger-than-life, not just for his commanding height and broad shoulders, but his positive energy, infectious personality, and room-filling laughter; like a giant teddy bear, one said.
Several family members had been killed by cancer, so after his diagnosis six years ago, Buchanan figured he was done, expecting a prognosis of months. Instead, his doctor said: “I expect a complete cure.” After surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, he was pronounced cancer-free in September 2016.
A private Facebook group had arisen to bolster the Buchanans, with dozens offering love, rides, food or whatever might be needed. His posts were typically wry and lighthearted:
“I have cursed early and often, but have been pretty good about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, as I needed a fallback position in case the chemo didn’t work,” Buchanan wrote. “I didn’t want to die and have St. Peter say something like, ‘Bill, Bill, Bill – you took the Lord’s name in vain just THREE weeks ago. This isn’t like when you were 17 and the lawnmower wouldn’t start. You KNEW you had cancer, what were you THINKING!’ “
The most recent post in the group, from July, read in part:
“Fighting for your own life doesn’t require courage …. But it does require resolve …. Fight it like you would fight someone breaking into your home and trying to kill you,” he wrote. “Life is worth it. Love you.”
In a Tuscaloosa News Thanksgiving Day story, Buchanan spoke about his struggles, and their aftermath: “Cancer treatment was a slog. The only way I got through it was with faith, family, and friends – in particular my wife Ava, who was my daily partner in the fight. I was thankful for those things before I was diagnosed, but my illness brought their importance into sharp relief.
“It’s not that I do not get upset about all the negative things we all face each day –COVID, political divisiveness, Notre Dame enjoying even modest football success.
“But I am truly grateful for my life, and for those with whom I share it.
“My Thanksgiving wish and advice to all: Hug those you love while you still can.”
Supporting the arts
His wife of 43 years, Ava Kuchera Buchanan, performer in Theatre Tuscaloosa and University of Alabama productions, is the artist in the family. But in youth, he did craft one painting that reached high art – or at least high up – drawing a lot of eyeballs.
In the early ’70s, the Ku Klux Klan had erected a billboard on I-59, running through his hometown of Fort Payne. William Blake “Bill” Buchanan and another teen-ager friend wouldn’t stand for that nastiness, so they risked climbing up in plain sight – though, smartly enough, late at night – to splash black paint across the words of hatred.
Poison oak afflicted him from the climbing, but that discomfort? “Worth it,” he’d say.
After graduating from UA in ’76, he went into sales for Smith Newspapers. Buchanan rose through ranks, becoming an editor and publisher as part of the group, then later on his own, as owner of the Ojai Valley News, in Ojai, California, and Marion County News, in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.
Work moved him to the Midwest – he met Ava in her native Nebraska – out to California, and back east to West Virginia, where the Buchanans married. They moved to Tuscaloosa in 1993. She soon found her niche, playing the title star of musicals from “Mame” to “Gypsy” to “Hello Dolly,” and in dramas from “The Glass Menagerie” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Her husband, an aficionado of arts and artists, was content to stay behind the scenes, but always working, serving on boards for Theatre Tuscaloosa, the Arts Council and Kentuck Art Center.
“The thing I love about the arts is that it really fosters the creativity in young people, and some old people, too,” said Buchanan, in a 2018 Tuscaloosa News story about the Druid City Arts Festival, one of the major events he helped oversee, working at TTS. “The arts give people an avenue that they might not ordinarily have, or they might not ordinarily be aware that they have.”
Leaving the newspaper industry as it began its sink into the doldrums, Buchanan moved to TTS in 2014, where, in a sense, he returned to sales.
“I love Tuscaloosa,” Buchanan said. “If you’re going to be a salesperson, you need a good product to sell. And what better product is there than Tuscaloosa?”
The news of his death was shocking, said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who had just seen and spoken with him last Friday.
“He was a fantastic storyteller. He led with such belief, because he genuinely cared. He was one of the good guys in the world,” Maddox said. “He so believed in Tuscaloosa. He was a natural fit with TTS, because he wasn’t selling a product, he was selling a passion.”
Buchanan hit his professional peak at TTS, said Lisa Waldrop Shattuck, a close friend.
“At the newspapers, he was the great and mighty Oz, having to make sure people were paid, and cared for … not that he wasn’t great at that, but at TTS he was part of a team,” she said. As boss of papers far and wide, Buchanan often traveled, even as Tuscaloosa remained home base.
“He’d always been engaged, civically, since he lived here, but this allowed him to be present in the community in a different way. Meeting and working with people was where he thrived and flourished,” Shattuck said.
Taking on Sally Field
Don Staley, president and CEO for TTS, said his staff is heartbroken, having lost not just a co-worker, but a family member.
“There’s going to be a serious void for this organization,” he said. Staley leaned on Buchanan not just for his work ethic and personality, but his way with words.
“He was a gifted writer,” Staley said. “In a hurry, in a pinch, he could craft something like nobody’s business.” When Sally Field made disparaging comments about what she’d have done, absent an acting career, suggesting she’d have been a “…really, really unhappy overweight person somewhere deep in Tuscaloosa,” Bill Buchanan crafted the open letter in reply:
“At Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports, we are not offended, as we see that there is an ‘absence of malice’ in your statement. … Your son Forrest Gump would have loved our city, as it was named as one of the top runner-friendly communities in the United States in 2016 by running.net!
“What can we do to entice you to come? Have Denny Chimes ring out the theme song to ‘Norma Rae’? Have the mayor declare ‘Steel Magnolias’ our city flower? Maybe ask the University of Alabama to name the football stadium’s playing surface Sally Field?
“People in Tuscaloosa are very easy to please. Just say, ‘Roll Tide,’ and they would like you. They would really, really like you.”
The highest point of Buchanan’s recent career had to be his efforts with the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History and Reconciliation Foundation, Staley said, which led to the creation of the 18-stop Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Trail.
Not surprising for a man who would as a teen-ager defy racists in the KKK, Buchanan embraced the work wholeheartedly. When he helped lead tours, recounting the city’s horrors and saluting its heroes, he would tear up, finding it difficult, for once, to speak.
“I’ll always be indebted to him for what he did for this organization, in so many ways, but especially that,” Staley said.
An extended family
Theatre Tuscaloosa Artistic Director Emeritus Paul K. Looney still can’t believe Ava Buchanan auditioned three times before being cast, after which she became one of his go-to actors. She and Bill quickly became part of a large, extended family, he said.
“We used to laugh that ‘I’ve known you three houses ago,’ ” Looney said. “If there was a party, they were going to host it,” with Ava baking up tables full of delicacies, desserts and finger foods, while Bill served as emcee and bartender.
“I feel like one of my rocks, one of my stabilizing persons, for me, is gone,” he said. “Bill became that in my life …. What can I say? He’s in my will.”
Like Looney and his wife Susan, Bill and Ava didn’t have biological children, but in essence adopted many around them. Thanksgivings became an “Orphans and Strays” parties. As part of a quartet, or in small groups, they’d traveled together to Europe, and to New York City.
“We’ve seen the mountaintop, and we’ve seen the valleys,” Looney said.
The May 1999 night when “A Little Night Music” closed, Ava invited her fellow cast member Shattuck home, “and we stayed up with our glasses of wine, listening to Joni Mitchell, chatting about this and that. …From there a family was born, a really unusual family dynamic.
“Bill was famous for saying ‘That was before we liked you, Leese,’ ” she said, laughing. Then he’d add ‘But now you’re the daughter we never wanted.’
“He was a wildly sentimental and emotional guy, but also the first with a cynical, inappropriate comment,” which he’d usually get away with, being so swiftly hilarious.
The Buchanans guided her during formative times, she said.
“Bill wanted to be a fixer. He wanted the best for me. He wanted me to be, not just happy, because happiness is fleeting, but he wanted me to be fulfilled, in the right place and at the right times.
“I wish I had a nickel for every time he said ‘Well here’s what you need to do, Leese.’ “
They encouraged her as she shifted from teaching, to administration at Shelton State Community College, and would babysit and treat her pets as well as they treated her. The Buchanans always had dogs, too, so the whole gaggle would share dinner together every night.
“When I was in graduate school, when I built my first house, when my parents died, they were right there,” Shattuck said.
The Buchanans served as role models for what a marriage could mean, she said.
“As with anyone you spend a lot of time with, you’d watch how they survive tumultuous times, share inside jokes and stories. … to watch that and be around that certainly made me want that for myself,” she said.
“It wasn’t like I had some idyllic notion of marriage. They, over time, showed what it took to live up to what you say you’re going to do, when you decide to walk alongside somebody forever.
“You do what you say you’re gonna do. You stick with it.”
Buchanan had spoken a number of times about renting a space, once the COVID-19 pandemic relented, just to see everybody, to be around his many friends and family, those who fervently wish the house had continued to extend credit.
A celebration of Buchanan’s life will be announced for sometime in the new year. The public will be invited.
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