The Greatest Generation just lost another great character

My husband’s dad died this morning. It wasn’t completely unexpected—he fell and fractured his pelvis a couple of weeks ago, starting that downhill slide that so many old folks face when they get frail and wobbly. So in some ways, to have him relieved of his suffering in fairly short order is a small comfort, as other family members have lingered on in pain for months.

Russell L. Bufkins was born in Boonville, Indiana January 3, 1920. It’s the same town my dad was born in 5 years earlier—in fact the families knew each other and it was on our first date that Bill and I discovered our common roots in a small coal-mining town on the Ohio River. My dad and Russ’s older brother had many escapades in their youth, and my dad even had pictures to prove it.

Pop, as we knew him, was the only one of the 6 kids to go to college—he earned a master’s degree in Journalism at Indiana University, and worked as a radio newsman before being called up for WWII. The family name was actually Bufkin, but when the Navy misspells your name, that’s what it becomes for life.

Assigned to a minesweeper in San Francisco Bay, Pop learned he suffered from debilitating seasickness, and begged for shore duty of any kind. That’s what launched his storied career as a Navy Public Affairs officer.

He spent a good part of the war at Ulithi Atoll, the south Pacific staging ground for the invasion of Japan. There he met legendary journalist Ernie Pyle, played tennis with Bobby Riggs as part of a USO tour, was given a photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi signed by the photographer Joe Rosenthal, and saved a late night dinner party with a British Admiral by singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs with the Admiral during a storm. Yes, he was quite a character.

In the 1950’s he was the chief PAO at NATO command in Naples, Italy, where he reluctantly staged a fake press conference because a visiting Admiral insisted on it. Knowing there was no news, he filled the room with coached ringers, and more or less bribed an AP correspondent friend to show up. Turns out the Admiral had a major announcement, the AP guy got a huge scoop on the Rome-based press, and Pop was a friend for life.

He did a couple of stints at the Pentagon, one working for Admiral John S. McCain Jr., whom he also coached in tennis. From the stories, the good Admiral wasn’t too easy to coach, especially by a lower-ranking officer. Pop also ran the Navy Book and Magazine office, and knew, or drank with, all the great journalists, screenwriters and authors of that day. His list of media contacts reads like a Who’s Who of the National Press Club in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

After retiring from the Navy, Pop became national PR Director for the Boy Scouts of America, and helped shepherd their relocation to Irving, Tx in 1979. If you think the Navy is full of PR war stories, you should hear about the Boy Scouts.

Among his accomplishments with the Scouts was creation of the famous ad campaign with distinguished former Boy Scouts—people like President Jerry Ford, baseball great Hank Aaron, and Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart. Family legend has it that the Boy Scout shirt provided for Pres. Ford didn’t fit, so Pop gave him his, which he then wore home. So I guess you can say Pop gave the shirt off his back to the President!

His years with the Navy and the Boy Scouts took him all over the world, with some interesting adventure stories and many treasures brought home to keep the memories strong.

In the early ‘80s he retired and spent his time researching the family genealogy, including visiting the Bufkin family ancestral estate in County Kent, England. Pretty much everyone named “Bufkin” in the U.S. is decended from that clan. Unfortunately, he never compiled all his research, so that’s something for Bill and me to do in the future.

He ran the Denton Tennis Association for years, was an avid bridge player, and volunteered as coordinator of the book sale at the Denton Library—this resulting in many, many books finding their way home. He enjoyed the concerts, recitals and operas put on by the music school at UNT, and never passed a garage sale without stopping and bringing home some “treasure.”

He was a character, like so many of his generation. Good solid people who won the big war and worked to keep the free world free. He was a great storyteller, and lived a life worth telling.

He joins in heaven his firstborn, Dorothy, who died of leukemia at age 6, and his wife Dorothy Clewlow Bufkins. Russ is survived by his sons Bill and Jim, both of Denton, his younger sister Ruth, many friends and the dog and cats who loved him and made his last months happier and warmer.

One thought on “The Greatest Generation just lost another great character

  1. Robin Hartzell December 21, 2009 / 10:09 am

    I'm sorry to hear about your father-in-law, Samra. My thoughts are with you, your husband and his family.

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