John Stanford spent 30 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Major General. He was recruited as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in 1995 from the position of county manager in Fulton County, Georgia. Stanford immediately proposed sweeping changes in the way the district did business and how it served students. He became a celebrity in the city and during visits to schools, children would cluster around him and ask for his autograph.
On August 26, 1996, he addressed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on the importance of public schools. Before the speech he remarked, "It's not political; not for me. I have children in school who are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and independents. I can't politicize the education of our children" (The Seattle Times).
On April 2, 1998, Stanford announced that he suffered from leukemia. He admitted that his self-imposed heavy workload may have caused him to dismiss the early symptoms of the disease. Two weeks after entering a hospital for treatment, he took an unauthorized leave of absence, walked two and a half miles toward home, and was stopped by Seattle Police. On May 6, 1998, he checked out of the hospital with the cancer in remission, and returned to work the next day.
The cancer returned and chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants were not successful. Stanford died at Swedish Medical Center on November 28, 1998.
"John dedicated every ounce of himself to our children," said Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014). "He put public education at the top of the civic agenda, and leaves us with a legacy of community responsibility to our children and their education. It is now up to all of us to continue the fight, to strive to achieve the goals John laid out for Seattle's families and children" (The Seattle Times).
The school district memorialized Stanford by naming the John Stanford International School (an elementary school in the Wallingford neighborhood) in his honor. One of Stanford's objectives was to require that all students study a foreign language.