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Bucking the Odds

Bob Buck“When the doctor asked me if I had considered amputation, I said, ‘Yes, but how is that going to handicap me?’” Buck said. “I remember to this day, he said, ‘The only handicap you’re going to have is what you put on yourself.’ So I made the decision to have my leg amputated.”

If that sounds like the beginning of a long, agonizing period of recuperation and rehabilitation, guess again.

“About four weeks after the operation, I walked down the aisle and got married,” Buck said. “A week after our honeymoon, I started in with the 1970 management training class at Bethlehem Steel and was back in business. I was lucky in that rehabilitation was relatively easy for me, because I didn’t wake up from the accident missing a leg and have that immediate trauma. This was something I was prepared for.”

That sequence of events tells you most of what you need to know about Bob Buck. His indomitable spirit, coupled with his mental preparation for what lay ahead, helped him overcome a major physical setback and put him on the road to a long and successful sales career in the steel industry. Those same qualities allowed him to start a family and made possible the continuation of a near-lifetime of devotion to one of the great loves of his life, the game of golf.

Today, Buck stays very busy in “retirement” as executive director of the Eastern Amputee Golf Association, having left Bethlehem Steel in 2002.

COMING TO TRANSYLVANIA

Two years before his automobile accident, Buck walked across the stage of Haggin Auditorium to receive his B.A. degree in business administration from the late Transylvania President Irvin Lunger.

Because of his family’s association with Bethlehem Steel in his native Pennsylvania, Buck had an early interest in business, making his choice of a major at Transy an easy one. However, his path to Lexington was a winding road. He first entered the University of North Carolina, then dropped out to sign on for three years in the U.S. Army, which included a brief tour in Vietnam.

Serving in the Army proved to be a great motivator for the value of higher education. “Five minutes off the bus at Fort Dix, I suddenly had this driving desire to learn,” he says, with a touch of wryness.

Following his discharge in 1966, Buck used a Connecticut consulting company to help him determine how to resurrect his college education. “After North Carolina, I knew I wanted a small school,” he recalled. “They gave me the names of three colleges in Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. I made a swing out that way, interviewed at the schools, and liked Transylvania the most.”

Buck was a member of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Transy. He was Most Valuable Player for the golf team his junior year and shared the honor his senior year with his roommate, Mike McGill ’68, who was also an Army veteran.

“I remember Transylvania as a great little school, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Buck said. “Ben Burns (the late humanities professor and dean of the chapel) was someone I liked a lot, and the intimacy of small classes was good for me.” Buck returned to his alma mater in 1998 to be inducted into the Pioneer Hall of Fame.

GETTING A LIFE UNDERWAY

After graduation from Transylvania, Buck returned to Pennsylvania, where he joined Bethlehem Steel just after the management training class of 1969 had begun. He worked for a year in the wire rope department, waiting for the 1970 class. The trauma of the automobile accident delayed his plans, but not for long.

By 1970, Buck was up and running in the sales department, where he would make his home at Bethlehem Steel for the next 32 years. He found the work to be always challenging and rewarding as he called on increasingly important accounts.

“It was primarily the fascination of calling on customers and developing the relationship with the purchasing agent and the principal deciders that fascinated me, and I thought I was pretty good at it,” Buck said. “Developing a trust and following up to make sure service and delivery were satisfactory were the keys.”

Among the major accounts Buck worked on was Dana-Reading, which purchased 350,000 tons of hot-rolled sheet steel annually to use in making rails that serve as the foundation for trucks such as the Ford F-150 and Mack, Kenilworth, and Peterbilt semis. He sold Worthington- Malvern about 60,000 tons of steel a year to manufacture supports for acoustic tile drop ceilings.

Buck saw two important changes during his career that impacted all steel companies, but especially Bethlehem, which was purchased in 2003 and no longer exists under its venerable name. In its heydays, Bethlehem supplied structural steel for the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The mini-mill concept of producing steel from scrap by using an electric furnace is something that Bethlehem did not react to, and that hurt them,” Buck said. “That, combined with more and more foreign competition, was devastating to us.”

When Buck retired from Bethlehem, he had earned the respect of his colleagues. Dan Mull, then vice president, commercial, said this in a written announcement: “Personable, reliable and conscientious, Bob has been entrusted with some of the largest sales responsibilities within our overall customer base as he has spearheaded Bethlehem’s successful sales efforts and record breaking shipments” to several major accounts.

GOLF GETS HIS ATTENTION

Bob Buck
Bob Buck assists Alexis Robinson at a First Swings clinic, which promotes golf as a rehabilitative and recreational activity.

After Buck left the steel business, he turned his full-time attention to his beloved avocation, golf. He has played the game for 53 years (from age 12) and won a club championship at age 16 that his grandfather had won in 1932. He had lessons as a youngster and was captain of the team at Choate Preparatory School in Connecticut.

Buck became aware of the National Amputee Golf Association 1984, and it opened up a whole new world for him. He quickly discovered he was talented enough to contend for the group’s national championship. (His current handicap index is 8.4)

“The 1984 NAGA tournament was held in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, just an hour away from Bethlehem,” Buck said. “I went to that event and was thrilled by it. I went out to California for the tournament the next year and had a four-shot lead with six holes to go, and lost by one. That was exciting recognition, to know I could compete with those players.”

Buck became the eastern region trustee for the NAGA in 1985, and in 1986 organized the EAGA, which he now heads. The group sponsors tournaments and clinics and even awards scholarships. First Swing is the name given to its clinics, which teach amputees the game of golf as well as golf and rehabilitation professionals how to use golf as therapy.

“The game of golf is a great rehabilitation and recreation medium for all people with disabilities, not just amputees,” Buck said.

The rewards of his work with the EAGA and its First Swing program are many, he says.

“I’ve been doing this work with the clinics for more than 20 years now, and it’s just amazing what goes on,” Buck says. “You’ll see an 80-year-old lady with a walker who just knocked the ball about 30 feet in the air, and she turns around with this big, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ look on her face, and I give her a high five. And you’re done for the day, you’re in great shape. I get more than I give, I can tell you that.”

Since retiring from Bethlehem Steel, Buck has worked full-time with the EAGA, and has a renewed sense of purpose.

“A Fox Sports News reporter was covering one of our clinics and asked me, ‘How has this affected you? You seem to be in pretty good spirits, having lost your leg.’ I said, ‘Well, now I have the feeling that this is my job, that maybe this is what the Lord had in mind for me. I love the game, I’ve played it since I was 12 years old, and now I can give something back and hopefully have other people enjoy it like I do. That’s a pretty good feeling. As for my leg, it’s not a handicap, it’s who I am.’”

Buck lives in Bethlehem with his wife, Linda. The couple have two grown daughters, Jennifer Ann Knies and Leigh Honeycutt Buck.

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