birthday party

Buck Buchanan smiles as he listens to stories from friends during his 100th birthday party in 2016.

Mr. Buck made an immediate impression on me several years back.

It was in the Winn-Dixie on St. Simons Island. We were both pushing shopping carts in opposite directions of the same grocery aisle. The first thing that caught my eye was that cap, set straight and level upon his head. “World War II Veteran,” it read across the front.

The opportunities to thank one of those gentlemen from the Greatest Generation are far and few between here in the 21st century. I was not going to pass this one up. “Thank you for your service, sir,” I said, extending my hand.

It was a firm grip that returned my offer. “Thank you,” he said, humbly.

He stood tall and lean and ramrod straight for such an older guy. But what I noticed most was a gleaming smile, which put a youthful sparkle in those nonagenarian eyes. He proceeded to tell me his age — 97? maybe 98? — and that he still drives himself to the store. He served as a medic with the Army Air Corps back during the war, Mr. Buck told me. I told him about my dad, a Navy air craft carrier pilot who completed his training just as WWII ended.

We talked for quite a few minutes before going our separate ways, me feeling better about the world just to know there were folks like Mr. Buck still walking it. I ran into Mr. Buck often over the next couple of years, usually at the Winn-Dixie. He was always happy to stop and have a word with me. We talked about the Tuskeegee Airmen once, that famed squadron of black fighter pilots so admired by Mr. Buck and my Dad. We talked fishing, I’m sure.

It did not really matter what we talked about and, frankly, I am not sure if he even knew my name. But he always seemed glad to see me, and always left me with a smile.

But sightings of Mr. Buck around the island grew increasingly rare in the last couple of years. Then, on June 23 of 2019, Gloster “Mr. Buck” Buchanan passed quietly. He had just turned 103 years old on June 6.

All that brief small talk Mr.

Buck shared with me hardly scratched the surface of the deep and rewarding life he lived. His story serves as a uniquely pertinent slice of history — an African American’s American journey through the 20th century.

He was born June 6 of 1916 in Jefferson Davis County. The son of Jefferson Davis and Emma Jane Buchanan, he was the youngest of 23 children. The family surname had been in use for barely two generations at the time.

Mr. Buck grew up around several relatives who had known the hardships of enslavement. There was Jim and Fanny, the older siblings of his father, Mr. Buck told the Florida Star newspaper last year. Freedom came for Jim and Fanny with the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Being the eldest member of the family, it was Uncle Jim who decided they would be Buchanans. Mr. Buck also mentioned a grandmother who was born into slavery. She lived for 123 years, he told The News back 2016. An anecdote he shared with The News suggests this grandmother also played role in making him a Buchanan.

“My grandmother lived to 123 years old,” Mr. Buck told The News. “She talked a lot about slavery and how when she was freed, she had to choose between the Harris, Turner and Buchanan names, so she chose Buchanan.”

Attending school in the Jim Crow era was daunting for a 10-year-old black child. It started with a walk of several miles each morning. “When we got there, we had to get wood to warm the room,” Mr. Buck recalled. “And our books were four to five years behind.”

He managed to get a sixth-grade education just the same. “They did stuff to keep us back because they didn’t want you to know what they knew,” he recalled.

Even a simple act of human decency between the races might have consequences back then. “I remember one time a bus driver picked me and my brother up when it was raining because he knew my father,” Mr. Buck said. “He told me, ‘Don’t tell nobody I picked y’all up cause I’ll lose my job.’ That’s when I knew we were different.”

After the death of his father, Mr. Buck went to live with an uncle in nearby Wheeler County for a time. He was 18 when he set off for the Georgia coast, where he would live the rest of his life.

He moved to St. Simons Island in 1933, going to work at the Sea Island Resort as a landscaper. He earned 15 cents an hour. Mr. Buck met an island girl name Celia and married her in 1940. It was the beginning of a 78 years of wedded bliss to the love of his life. (They had a daughter and three grandchildren. Celia passed several months ahead of Mr. Buck in 2019.)

With the start of World War II in 1941, Mr. Buck became part of the massive workforce at the Liberty Ship construction yards on the Brunswick River. His contribution to the war effort became more personal in 1943, when Mr. Buck was drafted.

He served as a medic in the U.S. Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force). “I worked in the medical department where I set bones, arms and legs,” he told The News.

Upon returning to his wife and St. Simons Island, Mr. Buck went into the brick mason trade. He laid brick for 35 years before retiring in the 1980s. His handiwork still holds strong in buildings around the island, including the fireplace at the American Legion Post 166 near Gascoigne Park.

In 2015, Post 166 honored Mr. Buck for his more than 60 years of service in the American Legion. He served as commander of two other American Legion posts before joining Post 166 in the 1990s.

A man of strong faith, Mr. Buck was an active member of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on Demere Road. The church is near the home on a spacious lot where Mr. Buck and Celia raised their daughter. In addition to hitting his favorite fishing spots around the island, Mr. Buck loved to tend his groves of fig and citrus trees.

On the eve of becoming centenarian, Mr. Buck offered this advice to our readers. “Keep on moving, stay busy doing something. Pray and do the right things and God will bless you.”

I felt blessed the day I met Mr. Buck by chance in the Winn Dixie. Our community is a better place for the simple fact that Mr. Buck made it his home as well.

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