BATH — Leon Buck’s tombstone says “I’d rather be golfin’.”
But Buck is hardly dead. He’ll be 93 on March 1 and seems healthier than many people half his age. Nonetheless, the stone for his future resting place in Oak Grove Cemetery paints a portrait, with its simple message, of a passion that has fueled his life and taken him all over the country, made his name well-known in sports circles and introduced him to a variety of unique and talented people.
Buck, who was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and the Maine Golf Hall of Fame in recent decades, also put in 44 years of service on the U.S. Golf Association public links and senior championship committees. He has been a longtime rules official at golf tournaments – starting in 1936 and officiating at seven championships as recently as last summer – and in 2006 came up with a set of seven hand signals to be used by players and officials alike at Maine State Golf Association events.
And when not on the green, swinging an iron or making sure a game is run properly, Buck has found time throughout his life to delve into other vocations – baseball, piano, ice fishing and writing among them – as well as a career in dentistry that spanned from 1946 to 1980. He and his late wife, Letitia, who died in 2005, also created a family from which more generations are burgeoning.
Buck’s Washington Street home, which has a commanding view of the Kennebec River, is like a museum – a gallery of the people and activities he has loved, with photos of family and friends (Arnold Palmer among them) and an overflowing array of trophies and plaques that reflect his accomplishments.
Buck was born in Woburn, Mass., in 1916, the year before the U.S. entered World War I and four years after the Titanic sunk. The following year Buck and his mother went to live at the Oak Street home in Bath of her father, Leonardo Chaney, a sea captain and Buck’s namesake. Oak Street, being heavily traveled, was the first street in Bath to be laid with cement, rather than gravel, which Buck remembers from when he was about 7.
He was a sportsman from early on, influenced by the local YMCA as well as his tough but kindly grandfather.
“He’d grown up out in California, where he had to defend himself every day,” Buck said. “He wanted me to know how to shoot a .22 rifle, and how to throw a knife, and how to box.”
His mother, on the other hand, kept him back from sports for most of his four years at Morse High School, which he entered in 1929. “She wanted me to grow up to be a Little Lord Fauntleroy, in a velvet suit, playing violin,” Buck recalled. “She got the doctor to say that I had heart trouble, and I couldn’t play any sports, because I’d come in sometimes with the neighborhood gang … and I’d have a bloody nose, or something, and it was the end of the world for her to see me bleeding.”
Buck’s natural athletic prowess ultimately won out. Although he wasn’t allowed to play football, he managed the team and would scrimmage with the players. Attending a church conference at Bowdoin College one week, Buck competed in a track meet for entertainment and rose above his opponents, leading one minister to peg him as state champion material. The achievement prompted Buck to consult a heart specialist in Portland on his own, who told him his ticker was fine.
“My senior year I decided I was going to play everything,” Buck said, adding that he turned out to be the only Morse High graduate to win varsity letters in five different sports in one year: baseball, basketball, football, golf and track.
Graduating in 1933, he attended Kents Hill School for a year to beef up his grades before enrolling in Bowdoin College. By the time he graduated as a chemistry major in 1938, he had played on the baseball, golf and hockey teams for four years. He helped his golf and baseball teams to championships in 1936, and his hockey team to one in 1937-38.
After graduating from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1942, Buck entered active duty in the Navy during World War II, pitching during that time in a baseball game between the U.S.S. Constellation versus the Newport Naval Training Station in Rhode Island.
Buck returned to Bath in 1946 and undertook the roles of dentist and family man, but golf remained an essential part of his life. He said he considers his winning of the Maine Amateur Golf Championship in 1950 key among his accomplishments, achieving victory after being eight down at the 11th hole and justifying his motto that one should never give up.
Buck is also a 12-time Bath Country Club champion and four-time State Best Ball champion with teammate Dr. Raymond Lebel.
It is the integrity of the game that has drawn Buck to golf since he started playing more than 80 years ago. “It’s an easy game, but it is very trying on people’s temperaments and personalities,” he said. “To be a winner, you’ve got to be under control. And as an athlete, I always told people to stay loose.”
His example has clearly endeared him to the golfers with whom he has worked.
“Golf has been my life because of the people,” Buck added. “I have met thousands of people, all over this country, working golf tournaments, being an official, as a player. And I get calls even now from somebody that I hadn’t thought of for 40 years, but they read something in the paper about me and they’re calling to see if I remembered them.”
Leon Buck of Bath, a month shy of 93 years old, remains dedicated to the game of golf.