Community hero featured on cereal boxes for tireless tutoring efforts
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Somewhere between exercising, working tirelessly in his yard, rebuilding classic cars, cutting hair and serving multiple roles as a lay leader at his church, 82-year-old renaissance man Neal Buchanan still finds time to volunteer as a reading tutor at the elementary school near his home.
Buchanan, a member of Lincoya Hills Baptist Church in Donelson, has been passionate about childhood literacy for his entire adult life. He was recently honored for his devotion to the cause by being featured on two brands of Kellogg’s cereal boxes — Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes.
“I am not sure why they selected me; I guess it’s because I have been doing it longer than anyone else,” said Buchanan in his typical humble manner.
“I think they chose him because he is the oldest one on the list,” joked his wife, Gail.
Buchanan, a former school principal, has been volunteering at Pennington Elementary School on a weekly basis since 1999. He visits the school once a week, working with three or four students for 30 minutes each.
When he first started volunteering, it’s unlikely that he ever envisioned that he’d one day end up sharing the spotlight with Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. But that’s exactly what happened.
This past spring, Buchanan was contacted by Dollar General — which has a partnership with Kellogg’s — and was told that they wanted to recognize him for his commitment to literacy. He landed on the cover of the cereal boxes several weeks later, and his friends and family members began seeing his picture on the boxes at supermarkets around the nation.
Kellogg’s is a sponsor of Dollar General’s Literacy Foundation, which awards grants to support literacy. As a DG Literacy Foundation grant receipient, the FiftyForward initiative — a volunteer tutoring program — pairs older adults with children who need help strengthening their reading skills. Buchanan has been a part of FiftyForward for 17 years.
“They notified me that I had been selected, and then they sent a photographer from Denver, and he came and took pictures at Pennington (Elementary School),” Buchanan said.
Although Buchanan was surprised by the recognition, those who know him best probably were not.
In fact, anyone who is familiar with “Mr. B” probably assumed it was just a matter of time before he ended up on the cover of a cereal box — although “Wheaties” might have been the more likely choice.
Buchanan is a champion in many capacities, both in terms of being a hero of the faith and a role model for healthy living.
He strictly maintains a daily exercise routine that includes running a mile and a half and then walking three and a half additional miles. Buchanan rarely misses a day, regardless of the weather or any other obstacles that many people would use as an excuse.
Buchanan also stays busy with other outdoor activities, including yard work. He is known among his neighbors for his “Energizer Bunny” style work ethic when it comes to pulling weeds, mowing the grass, trimming hedges and other duties.
He is equally effective at projects inside the house. Buchanan is a bona fide “Mr. Fix It” on virtually anything — plumbing, painting, electrical work, etc. — and is a wizard with automobiles, too, as evidenced by the 1922 Ford Model T that he restored.
On top of all this, the ultimate handyman is also a barber (he got a barber’s chair for Christmas last year) and cuts hair for several friends.
Buchanan continuously uses his talents to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus. Whether it’s repairing the roof on a church member’s house, visiting an ailing neighbor in the hospital, serving on church committees, or simply offering the use of his truck to haul supplies and other items, Buchanan embodies the concept of having a “servant’s heart.” His love for Jesus is evident to all those who know him.
And yet, despite having so many irons in the fire, Buchanan makes sure that his volunteer work at the school remains a top priority.
He was pictured on the cereal boxes with one of his tutoring students, Noah DeJesus, who attends Pennington Elementary and has made great strides in his reading in recent months. (Buchanan said he was allowed to “suggest” a student for the picture).
“It was a big deal for Noah,” said Buchanan. “He was a celebrity at school.”
Buchanan’s role at Pennington is just one of the many stops that he has made in his career as an educator, both in paid and unpaid positions. “I’ve worked with two-year-olds up to graduate students in college,” he said with a smile.
Buchanan also worked as an editor, including editing children’s literature, at the Sunday School board (now LifeWay) for 23 years. During this time, he also co-authored a book and developed the “ABCs of Salvation” — a teaching tool that is still in circulation today. It is used to tell children, and adults, too, about Jesus.
He also was the principal of a program for emotionally disturbed children in North Carolina and for a psychiatric school in Memphis.
“I have been involved in teaching, in some form or another, all my life,” he said.
Hopefully, he won’t stop teaching any time soon. After all, as a close friend of his likes to say, we all can stand to learn a thing or two from “Mr. Neal.”