They called him Dan, Danny, Danny Boy, Dapper Dan, Mr. Dan and Mr. Buck, and all who knew him marveled at his resilience and the illumination he brought to nearly every conversation. Daniel R. Buck died on Thursday, Dec. 7, at the age of 95, a fitting day for a WWII veteran who always wore an American flag pin in his lapel, regardless of who was in the White House. A bachelor his entire life, Dan never drove a car, walked everywhere he could up until his last year, and wore a necktie – usually a bow tie – every day for most of his adult life.
He was born on Sept. 29, 1922, in Springfield, one of nine children of Daniel R. and Lela Meredith Buck. His father built the home Dan grew up in on Columbia Avenue, and it was the foundation and address of his Springfield years. A graduate of DuBois School, of Springfield High School, and Springfield Junior College, Dan’s education was cut short by his enlistment two years into WWII, but his education and instincts for language and linguistics found him a berth at a special and isolated internment camp for Italian POWs just south of Washington, D.C., where he “interviewed” prisoners during his wartime service. Dan learned Italian from listening to opera on the radio as an adolescent. He once told me that it was a fight to get listening opportunities for the opera on the family radio when his six sisters and older brothers were such big Cubs fans. The ballgames always took precedence.
After the war Dan came back to Springfield and, because of his love for the theater, found roles in Springfield Theatre Guild and Muni Opera productions, building and painting sets in his spare time. There was plenty of music, magic, good food and romance in Dan’s life. According to a family story, one of Dan’s many women friends said she would “never get married, unless it is to Dan Buck, and he will never marry.” I hope they are having coffee now, trading stories and repeating their vows.
In the early 1950s, Dan moved to Boston, where he was an administrative secretary for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. While there he was season ticket holder for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Metropolitan Opera. He also traveled extensively both before and after his retirement in 2003, and subsequent return to Springfield.
Though in his early 80s, Dan was not the retiring sort. He came to work for the Illinois State Historical Society as a volunteer in 2004, walking from his home on East Adams Street to the ISHS offices around the corner, up two flights of stairs, always carrying a bag filled with newspapers, crossword puzzles, chocolate and the latest issue of the New York Times. He answered the phone for us, directed calls, read back issues of the ISHS Journal and Illinois Heritage magazines, and helped out at special events. In addition, he sponsored dozens of individual memberships to the Society and to the Sangamon County Historical Society. He was the kind of member of which every nonprofit organization dreams. And the source of his passion for local history was the history of his own family, which had roots in the American Revolution.
If you saw Dan on the streets you might suspect he’d stepped from the pages of The New Yorker, for few who saw him failed to describe him as “dapper.” Indeed, he was a walking advertisement for elderly fashion, and probably created new intergenerational markets for the bow tie.
Dan was a great fan of Edgar Lee Masters, and many of the books on his bookshelves were first editions, several signed by the Illinois author from Petersburg. He loved Illinois history, and attended every symposium or conference on Prairie State history he could. He was a frequent guest at the University of Illinois Springfield’s “Lunch and Learn” programs, as well as the Lincoln Legacy Lectures held every October. He was a lifelong learner with capital letters.
Dan was also adept in the kitchen, known for hosting feasts in Boston, someone who spoke fluent gourmet with Springfield’s downtown chefs. Every spring Dan was one of the first to sit down for a slice of Maldaner’s “Truffle Pie,” and he had a fondness for David Brady’s “Apple Raisin Pie,” an occasional treat for the weekly morning breakfast club at Café Moxo, long hosted by Prairie Archives’ John Paul. This group has met continuously for 20-plus years, and Dan’s seat will be noticeably vacant.
When the New York Metropolitan Opera began its “Live in HD” program series, which featured video of productions of live operas at the MET in local movie houses, Dan was one of the very first to sign up. I was one of several folks lucky enough to drive Dan to these “events.” His other drivers and fellow opera lovers included Roberta Volkmann, Phyllis Brissenden and others, who all were treated to giant chocolate chip cookies from the depths of Dan’s carry-all bag. During the performances Dan would sometimes close his eyes and disappear to another stage, where he would hear arias from another time, but he never fell asleep.
After the program on the drive back to his apartment, he would often throw back his head and sing a phrase or two from the opera he’d just heard, and his 90-year-old voice would remind you of the vocalist he might have been.
Dan was the last of the nine Buck children from the Columbia Avenue address to pass away. He is survived by many nieces and nephews, dozens of friends and an army of admirers. We will not see him again but in our hearts.
William Furry is executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society.