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Buck's legacy of building up community will go on

The hard hats know them as the knot-hole gang. These are the (almost always) men who find distraction in watching a construction project. Bridges, buildings, roads, doesn't matter. Stop and take a gander at the craftsmanship.

The name knot-hole gang comes from construction sites in an urban setting. To get a look at the progress, you had to peek through the holes in the wooden barricades separating bricks and mortar from passing pedestrians.

Ken Buck and I shared this affliction some years ago. He was executive director of the Pasco Food Bank. I was toiling for another newspaper and our offices ended up in the same strip center in Land O'Lakes as construction crews turned U.S. 41 from two-lane congestion to six lanes of commuter convenience.

No knot holes needed, but watching the earth movers, dump trucks and asphalt became a daily fascination. "What's with you?'' one of the Food Bank's female employees finally asked Buck about the communal construction-watching.

"I guess it's a guy thing,'' Buck answered.

True, but further reflection reveals something else. Buck was interested in building things. Not with hammers and nails, but with leadership.

He helped build the Pasco Food Bank (now known as the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank) from a scatter-gun group of do-gooders into a highly respected nonprofit distributing 1.8-million pounds of food to the hungry in four counties.

He helped build Republican Party unity (ignore the oxymoron) in 1996 when he declined to engage in a runoff election to determine who would oppose a Democratic incumbent county commissioner.

Buck had finished second in the primary and said he didn't see the wisdom of trying to run a second campaign before the general election, effectively making it easier for the incumbent to prevail.

Buck admitted he didn't enjoy that foray into the political arena. He went to a workshop for Republican candidates and the first thing the facilitator told him and the others was how to dig for dirt on their opponents.

No thanks, Buck said.

Think about the road building and you'll understand why. Tearing someone down just wasn't in his nature.

Buck, who retired from the food bank a few years ago, died at home Friday afternoon. He was 74. There will be no services.

His legacy is the Suncoast Harvest's headquarters, warehouse and thrift store on Ehren Cutoff, just east of U.S. 41. The agency first operated out of cramped quarters inside an empty citrus packing plant, relocated temporarily to space all around Land O'Lakes and Lutz and finally built its own warehouse with the assistance of a county-administered federal grant.

''Those were tough times. There were questions of whether or not we'd survive and he saw us through all of that,'' said Land O'Lakes attorney Tim Hayes, who sits on the food bank board. "It says a lot about the man.''

Buck's health started to get in the way. First a minor stroke watching a Bucs game on television in 1998, then triple bypass surgery three years later.

Still, he advocated on behalf of those in need.

"The hungry can't be stereotyped,'' he once wrote to this newspaper. "They are elders, children, the ill and yes even some of your neighbors.''

He would talk about the propensity for the public to get warm and fuzzy feelings around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone wanted to ensure people had a warm holiday meal on the table. Great, Buck cautioned, but don't forget that feeding the hungry must continue 365 days a year.

I also think of Buck watching county commissioners take it on the chin in 1995. It was the final public hearing on the county budget and the anti-tax rhetoric was in full force after voters, two few weeks earlier, had rejected a sales tax increase to pay for new school construction.

Commissioners listened to the sarcasm, the thunderous applause for the leading anti-tax advocate and then approved the budget without blinking.

At the end of the evening, I walked away from the stage where commissioners had sat, and Buck headed toward it. He volunteered his intentions.

"I have to tell the board I'm proud of them,'' he said.

After a night of being beaten down, Ken Buck was going to try to do for county commissioners what he did with most everything else.

He was going to build them up.

C.T. Bowen can be reached at bowen@sptimes.com or at (727)-869-6239.

Buck's legacy of building up community will go on 09/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 3:41pm]

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