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Willie Buck: More than just the town cop

Captain William (Willie) Buck was the Urbanna town policeman in the 1940s. Above, Buck stands in the middle of Cross Street in front of old Marshall’s Drug Store and the Urbanna Post Office that was located in the bank building next to and just south of the drug store. (Photo courtesy of Richard Marshall)

by Larry S. Chowning

An old faded photo of the late Captain William (Willie) Buck, the Urbanna town policeman in the 1940s, was found in a photo album of the late Lucy Marshall of Marshall’s Drug Store.

Arcadia Publishing of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, plans to release a book on Urbanna in July and the photo of Buck will be in that book.

Initially, there was a question as to who was the person wearing a uniform and badge in the photo. Some Urbanna residents thought it was Darby Gayle, a town policeman in the 1930s, while others thought it was Buck.

When the Marshall’s Drug Store breakfast counter group was queried as to who the policeman was, it was determined to be Buck, and several stories then came forth about the colorful and revered town cop of yesteryear.

One story recalled by a member of the drug store breakfast group was originally told by the late Virgil Gill of Remlik. Gill was a member of the town poker club known as the “Buzzard’s Roost.” The location of the club varied from time to time, but on one winter night club members were playing in a back room at Taylor Hardware on Cross Street.

Besides playing poker, the night was filled with drinking, and Gill said when he stepped into his car to go home to Remlik Hall he was “three sheets to the wind.” With ice and snow falling, Gill got into his car and started home. When he got halfway, he suddenly heard a siren and saw flashing lights behind him. 

In the police car was a young state trooper who had just started working in Middlesex County. As the trooper was about to write Gill a ticket, another car pulled up. It was town cop Willie Buck. After some discussion, Buck was able to persuade the state trooper that Mr. Gill was an outstanding citizen of Middlesex and he would personally see that he got home safe and sound. The trooper agreed and did not give Gill a ticket.

Mr. and Mrs. William (Willie) Buck were talented musicians as this 1925 Southside Sentinel ad indicates. Willie and his wife were violinists at the Regal Theatre in Urbanna when silent films were shown. They were part of the live orchestra that played music during the movies. “Talking movies” were not introduced until the late 1920s and prior to that theatre owners provided a live orchestra. The Regal Theatre was located in the upstairs of today’s town hall building in Urbanna. (Courtesy of Archie Soucek)

“When Willie Buck died, the church was filled with people,” said Gill in a 1980s article in the Southside Sentinel. “I sat right there with several other members of the Buzzard’s Roost on the front row of the church.”

Bob Henkel of Urbanna recalls a time in the 1940s when he and a group of boys “borrowed” four or five watermelons from a grower’s field behind Grafton Baptist Church at Hartfield. “The watermelons were all piled up ready to be shipped,” said Henkel. “We took four or five and brought them back to my parents’ restaurant in Urbanna. We were eating them there when Willie Buck came in. We invited him to have a piece. I got a feeling he knew they were stolen, but he never questioned us. He loved to eat watermelon.”

Don Richwine recalls that Willie Buck was a mild-mannered man. “I don’t know if he ever gave anybody a ticket. One Halloween there were a bunch of us boys riding around town shooting Roman candles,” said Richwine. “One of the candles hit Willie’s car that was parked in front of the drug store. He chased us out of town but we knew he never went any further than Cooks Corner, so we made it there and kept on going. He turned around and went back to Urbanna. He’d chase you about as far as Town Bridge Road on the other side of town.

“Another time I was shooting sky rockets (fireworks) from the hill [on Rappahannock River] and I hit the engine box of Lighthouse Crockett’s boat that was out in the creek. I couldn’t have done that in another 15,000 tries,” said Richwine.

“Lighthouse called Willie and he came to the hill and questioned us,” said Richwine. “He asked, ‘You boys shooting fireworks off the hill?’ ”

Richwine responded, “No sir, but I saw some kids playing with some fireworks over on the beach.”

“Ya’ll be careful. Don’t you shoot any more,” Buck told Richwine.

“He had a very serious sounding voice, but he wasn’t going to do anything any way,” said Richwine.

Carl Dize recalls he needed a car ride to catch the bus in Saluda to go fight in World War II, and Buck got up early and took him to the bus stop in Saluda. “He was a helpful person,” said Dize.

This 1940s postcard shows the sailing yacht “Nighthawk” under sail in Urbanna Creek. From the early 1930s until 1947, Urbanna was home to the wooden sailing schooner and town cop Willie Buck was her captain. (Photo courtesy of Roy Bowman)

“In the spring, I worked with him on the sailing yacht ‘Nighthawk,’ Dize continued. “I used to hoist him up the mast on the Nighthawk when we were getting her ready for the season.”

The sailing yacht was owned by H.V. Balwin, owner of a major dry goods store on Hull Street in Richmond. Willie Buck also was captain of the Nighthawk.

“Willie had a twin brother and you couldn’t tell the difference between them,” said Dize. “Willie’s wife’s name was Mabel. They ran the Urbanna Beach Hotel before C.D. Dameron bought the hotel. After Mr. Dameron bought it, Willie and Mabel continued to live in the back of the hotel, downstairs.”

Richard Marshall also remembers Willie Buck. “Most people thought of him as a town cop but Willie was a sailing man too,” said Marshall. “He captained several of the large yachts that started coming to Urbanna in the 1930s.”

In 1947, Nighthawk was sold to a man in New York City. Captain Willie Buck and then 17-year-old Richard Marshall sailed the vessel to its new homeport. It would never return to Urbanna. It was an experience of a lifetime for Marshall, the current owner of Marshall’s Drug Store in Urbanna.

“By then, the Nighthawk was not in real good shape,” said Marshall. “She was used pretty hard in World War II and she didn’t get the care she had gotten before the war. We started the trip, but had to return to Urbanna for repairs and then we started again.”

The vessel was conscripted to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and returned to its owner at the end of the war.

“A man from New York bought it and he sent a friend down to be with the boat,” said Marshall. “We went outside (in the ocean), and the first night outside we moored off Hog Island. The anchor didn’t hold and we woke up in shallow water on our side. We waited for high tide and were able to get going again.

“One evening, we were south of the mouth of Delaware Bay and I awoke during the night,” continued Marshall. “The other fellow was at the helm. When I went up top, he told me to take the helm because he was going below and get some sleep.

“I had never sailed anything like that before and it was amazing out there with the sun coming up and the sails catching the wind,” Marshall recalled with fondness.

When they got to New York City and delivered the boat, Willie Buck caught a bus back home to Urbanna. Marshall stayed by himself and went to see a baseball game between the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates.

After the game, Marshall caught a bus back to Urbanna. “It was an amazing trip,” said Marshall. “It was a trip of a lifetime and after that I had a different type of respect for Willie. I didn’t realize what a capable man he was until we were out there alone in the ocean — far away from the streets of Urbanna. I got to see another side of the man.

“My father (Dr. Thomas F. Marshall Sr.) knew him and how capable he was, or he surely wouldn’t have let me go on the trip,” said Marshall. “Dad probably knew that he’d teach me lessons that I’d carry with me for the rest of my life — and he did.”

posted 02.01.2012

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