Beloved educator dies after lengthy battle with cancer

A Bartholomew County educator who earned widespread admiration for almost 20 years has succumbed after a three-year battle with cancer.

Columbus East High School social studies teacher Tony Pottorff, 49, died of complications resulting from advanced breast cancer at about 5:30 p.m. Friday in his home, according to a family friend. Family members were at his side, the friend said.

After receiving the news, Columbus East Social Studies department chairman Greg Lewis spoke with sadness and emotion in his voice.

“This is a giant that we have lost on so many levels,” Lewis said.

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The consummate teacher

After spending the first two years of his teaching career in Indianapolis, Pottorff transferred to East 19 years ago. Since that time, he has become a popular figure among the school’s alumni, as well as others throughout the Columbus area, according to multiple social media postings.

While initially hired to teach economics, Pottorff became licensed to teach every social studies discipline requiring a license: government, sociology, psychology, U.S. history and world civilization, Lewis said.

“And he taught each of those courses over the past 19 years,” the department chair said. “That’s absolutely unheard of. And Tony always taught with the greatest passion and professionalism. He was the consummate teacher.”

It was in June, 2017, that Pottorff first noticed a bump on his left breast that he initially dismissed as a cyst. After his wife, Margie, insisted that physicians examine him, a biopsy confirmed Pottorff was suffering from metastatic HER2-Positive breast cancer, according to news accounts.

Following the initial shock, the educator decided to turn his disease into a teaching tool to let others know that breast cancer occurs in males, as well as females. As a member of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, Pottorff frequently spoke to different groups, passed out business cards, and reminded males and females to give themselves frequent breast self-exams.

After the 2017 diagnosis, several people advised Pottorff to quit teaching and go on disability because he was taking several medications with side effects, according to Michelle Burnett, his teaching colleague and friend.

“But he consistently refused to consider that option,” Burnett said. “He said teaching was his purpose and it kept him going, in addition to his love for his family.”

Passion and faith

Describing Pottorff as a model of strength, Lewis expressed amazement that Pottorff was able to record and post an eLearning lesson just one day before he died.

“When I think of Tony, I think of love,” Lewis said. “Great love for his wife and daughters, but also for his students.”

“His positive attitude served as a beacon for everybody,” Columbus East principal Mark Newell said. “Just seeing how Tony was dealing with this cancer with such class and grace was very humbling to me.”

In earlier interviews, the Pottorff family spoke about bonds of fellowship they have formed with fellow members of First Christian Church. According to Newell, Tony Pottorff became so involved with several youth-oriented programs at First Christian that he was just as highly regarded by the church as he was by the staff at East, Lewis said.

“He was just a model of how to deal with cancer, and I think his faith was a big part of that,” Newell said.

All of those positive qualities won Pottorff quite a few admirers. Perhaps the most memorable evidence of that face was a 50-vehicle well-wishing parade last April that drove past the ailing teacher’s home on Taylor Road. The parade was organized after COVID-19 had closed school campuses, and complications had worsened Pottorff’s condition.

The well-wishing extravaganza included students, teachers and supporters who wore special pink T-shirts with the message “Tony’s fight is my fight.” These same shirts were worn by professional staff members at Columbus East every Tuesday while classes were in session.

Bravery and humility

One of the most endearing qualities that Pottorff possessed was genuine humility, Burnett said.

During the parade, the ailing teacher became visibly touched when he saw a heartfelt message painted on the rear window of a vehicle: “We love you, Mr. Pottorff.”

“I don’t deserve any of this,” Pottorff said at the time.

But just hours after his passing, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent Jim Roberts begged to differ.

“Tony was an outstanding teacher who really loved his students, which kept him going as he battled this dreadful disease,’ Roberts said. “His dedication to his job amazed me.”

When word spread last week that Pottorff had been placed in hospice care, Roberts said he was continuously receiving messages, letters and gifts from friends and well-wishers from throughout the area.

The superintendent said he was definitely proud of how the entire community rallied around the veteran teacher during his final days.

But it wasn’t just Tony Pottorff who had the right attitude. During an interview earlier this year, he credited his wife, Margie, for providing him with the best perspective on his situation.

“She has said that a lot of people live and die and never really get a full glimpse of how much they were loved,” he said. “But she mentioned that I have had so many opportunities to see that.”

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Age: 49

Education: Bachelor of Arts in sociology, IUPUI; bachelor’s in education, Indiana University; master’s in education, Indiana Wesleyan University.

Family: Wife, Margie; two daughters, Amanda (a sophomore at Notre Dame University) and Delaney (a sophomore at Columbus North High School).

School-related activities: Sponsor of the National Honor Society at Columbus East; concession manager at East and Central Middle School; Served at various times as track and cross country coach at East, as well as at Central and Northside middle schools.   

Community involvement: Member of First Christian Church of Columbus.  Headed multiple youth-related ministries and outreach programs for the church.