TEAM JOE finishes the relay for fallen friend
Joe Kutcher would be amazed at the efforts of fellow teacher Jenny Cassell and his Wando “family.” He passed away last year after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer, but his legacy lives on in TEAM JOE, a group of teachers and administrators from Wando High School who banned together to honor his memory. In addition, the students who adored him have gotten involved and taken the message even farther,
Most recently Team Joe participated in the Relay for Life. This year the Wando Chorus had a pancreatic cancer fundraiser at Awendaw Green. The Voice of Wando sold Team Joe T-shirts and dedicated of plaque in the boys’ basketball locker room in honor of Joe Kutcher. Another plaque was dedicated to Kutcher in his honor in the Freshman Academy.
A special Tie Day was held at Wando High School to honor his memory and love of “graphic” ties.
According to his wife ReBecca, it just goes on and on.
From articles about Joe in the Tribal Tribune (the school newspaper) to tributes in the Tribe Talk newsletter, Joe’s memory has been commemorated over and over again.
This year’s Wando High School yearbook is being dedicated to him, too.
“This man was totally loved and embraced by this special school - faculty, administrators and students,” said ReBecca. “I just cannot thank them enough for keeping him ‘alive’ in so many special ways. Wando is indeed a special place that teaches more than the academics,” she said.
Relay for Life
Jenny Cassell has been the driving force for most of the events. “What she has pulled together for Relay for Life is beyond words for me,” ReBecca said.
Cassell and Joe were colleagues for 10 years. After he got sick they shared a classroom and co-taught together, and became great friends.
“Joe was so fill of life. He was so funny and always laughed at his own jokes,” she said. “And he could easily have serious conversations too. Joe took his job at Wando very seriously. He lived for Wando and lived for his girls and his wife,” Cassell said.
Team Joe started after Joe passed away. Cassell started a group at Wando called the Remembering Joe Kutcher group, She explained that a few teachers got together and did things throughout the year to remember him. When spring came around, they remembered he participated in Relay for Life. Thus, Team Joe was born. All money raised went to the American Cancer Society in his memory and they raised a little over $6,000.
The walk in honor of Joe was particularly special, because they did it in order to help Joe finish his walk.
Joe was a Wando Student Council Freshman Advisor and for quite a few years the council adopted Relay for Life as their cause of choice. Even before Joe’s diagnosis, he went to Relay for Life as the chaperone so the kids could participate. The goal was to have representation from the council walking the track all night long from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “I remember Joe coming home one particular morning after chaperoning and him being in pain,” recalled ReBecca. “He had bruises up and down his shins, cuts on his legs and on his side. I asked him what in the world happened. He proceeded to tell me a story that he and I would often re-tell while laughing,” she explained.
In the middle of the night, some of the student council students were starting to lose a bit of interest and were getting tired. They tried to keep themselves focused by pulling out some hurdles and jumping (or trying to jump) them. Joe sat and watched them and some Kutcher pride set in, she said.
Joe decided he would show all of his students how young he still was. His brilliant mathematical mind measured how high the hurdles were and calculated how far back he would need to go and how high he would need to jump to get over them. As he sat there watching them miss their jumps, Joe saw it as his time to shine. He told ReBecca, “I looked at those hurdles and thought, that’s kid’s stuff. Of course I can clear that and I will earn some ‘cred’ doing it in front of my students.”
So he stood up in the middle of the night, told the kids they should watch, and he ran, leaped, cleared his front leg over the hurdle, but his back foot hit it and he crashed.
He said he rolled out of it and for a millisecond stayed down, but then popped up trying to pretend it was nothing. He took one step and realized he was hurt. The kids rolled with laughter after they saw that he was standing back up. “Joe stood proudly,” said Rebecca, “and told the kids he was okay. He said he was tired and he crawled into his tent. “
Once Joe helped student council clean up at 7 the next morning, he headed straight home, got in a tub, soaked his wounds and fell asleep.
After Cassell formed the team Rebecca shared that story with her and that Joe had a goal for the relay, but never got to complete it. In spring of 2011, Joe decided he wanted to do the relay as a survivor. Even though the new primary tumor showed up on the tail of his pancreas, he was determined that he was going back in for surgery in June 2011 and they would take it off and that would be that, said Rebecca.
He wanted to walk the relay in 2011 as a survivor and his goal was to walk a mile for every year since his diagnosis. “Our whole family was there. We took our motor home and used it as a place to gather during the night. We noticed when we walked with him, he was very quiet and eventually he told us what he was going in his mind when he walked. He was re-counting every month of his fight,” she said.
He kindly told me that he was being reflective and needed to focus as he walked.”
All night long round and round he went.
After he came home, he wrote a Caring Bridge entry. His goal was to walk again last year (2012), but he was in the hospital. “I know it pained him that he couldn’t be there. Elizabeth Reckdenwald and her daughter went and walked in his honor and sent him pictures throughout the night. He appreciated it greatly, but he so badly wanted to be there. He said he would be there this year and finish his walk (even though quite a few more months would be added on by that time),” said Rebecca.
So this year, TEAM JOE did it for him, They walked one mile for each month of his diagnosis - October 2009 to July 2012.
According to Cassell, 25 members participated and 15 stayed all night long. “We were the only team left walking the track after midnight,” she said.
“We walked 34 miles (one mile per month after Joe’s diagnosis) and the team members rotated his sign and walked the entire night. When we had four laps/1 mile remaining the rest of us who were still there (at 4:45 a.m.) all joined together and walked the last four laps. We walked the last lap to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. We got to pick the music because we were the only ones left,” she said.
“It was cold, windy and rainy, but we were all so determined to finish Joe’s walk that we were not affected by the weather or how tired we were at that point. There were a lot of laughs, tears and hugs that night.”
Joe’s family is also getting in on the fun. Naturally they want to keep his memory alive and they’re doing so in the form of a scholarship in his name.
His wife, daughters, family, friends, colleagues and community members have created a Joseph Kutcher Scholarship.
A graduating senior this year will be the first recipient of the $1,500 scholarship. The scholarship was Joe’s wish. Joe had a specific type of child in mind for the scholarship. It will go to a student who persevered and overcame struggles.
“Our community and friends could not be more supportive,” said Rebecca. “Wando has exhibited their love for Joe in so many ways. One of my biggest fears (and I suspect Joe’s, too) is that he would be forgotten; that he wouldn’t have a legacy or that since he passed at a young age, he didn’t have enough time on earth to make the impact he would have if he lived to 70.”