For decades, Tom Buck was a highly respected and much admired man in the small town of Milton, N.C.
A longtime constable, decorated World War I veteran, father and grandfather, Buck established a reputation as a fair and honest individual who always seemed to remain calm in every situation.
Having served 25 years in law enforcement, Buck became known as a dependable and trustworthy person who was always willing to help those in need.
Buck’s life eventually ended the way he lived it – in the service others.
At around 7 p.m. on April 3, 1963, Buck received a report about an erratic driver in the streets of Milton. As he attempted to flag down the car, he was struck and the intoxicated driver fled the scene.
Nearly four hours later, as he lay in a hospital bed holding his son’s hand, the 65-year-old Buck became the first and only Caswell County law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty.
Earlier this month, exactly 50 years following that terrible incident, a bridge on NC 57 over Country Line Creek was dedicated in Buck’s honor.
The Tom Buck Bridge dedication ceremony drew many elected officials, family members and friends to the tight-knight community tucked along the Virginia border.
But none in the crowd beamed with as much pride as Buck’s daughter, longtime Apex resident Dorothy Palmer.
“It is long overdue,” said Palmer about the tribute. “But what keeps going through my mind is that daddy would have really liked this.”
The bridge dedication was the result of a lot of time and effort spent by Buck’s grandchildren, Brenda Gail Sears of Apex and Larry Jackson of Roxboro.
They were determined not to have their grandfather’s sacrifice forgotten by the community he loved so much.
“It was his oldest son, my uncle, that actually started all of this,” said Sears. “But he died before it could happen. We just wanted to make sure he was remembered. This has been really great for the family and it has brought back lots of memories. I just wish my grandmother could have lived to see it, too.”
“It was a very nice ceremony and I could not be prouder,” said Jackson. “It was a lot of hard work.”
Palmer, who has two other children – Ricky Blalock of Apex and Janice Navarra of Fuquay-Varina – living locally, vividly recalls the day her father died.
She and her husband and children just recently moved to Apex when they got the news about the fatal hit-and-run incident.
“It was so very hard,” said Palmer. “I remember just laying on my bed and crying. We always ran to daddy for everything and I remember thinking, ‘What in the world will we do now?’”
When Palmer returned to Milton for the funeral she was touched by what she saw.
“There was just an outpouring of support from the community,” said Palmer. “Everybody liked him.”
Even those who may not have liked him too much, criminals for instance, certainly respected him.
Palmer remembers how scores of men would show up at their doorstep to turn themselves in to her father.
“If somebody got in trouble my father would let people know he was looking for them,” said Palmer. “I remember many times the doorbell ringing, especially on Sunday morning. You had men getting drunk and in trouble on Saturday night and the next morning they would show up at our house to get arrested.”
Sears, who was just a little girl at the time, also remembers those Sunday morning visit.
“It seems unbelievable, doesn’t it?” said Sears. “But I remember people knocking on the door early Sunday morning after they got in trouble on Saturday night. God as my witness, that is how it used to happen. They had a lot of respect for him.”
Although Buck rarely lost his temper, most people didn’t want to push their luck. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, the combat veteran was not the type of person you wanted to get angry.
“He was such a nice man and had a great heart,” said Sears. “But he was a pretty big man and I’m sure he knew how to handle himself in a bad situation.”
The investigation into Buck’s death didn’t need to take much time. Everybody in town knew what had happened and the identity of the driver, Nathaniel “Junior” Willis only added to the tragedy.
Willis was a former law enforcement officer and a family friend who took full responsibility for Buck’s death even though he couldn’t remember the incident.
“There were two people in the car that night but he always accepted responsibility,” said Sears. “I don’t think he ever meant to hurt him. Regardless, it happened.”
Shortly after the funeral, Palmer was in a Milton store when she was approached by a woman.
“It was Junior’s sister,” said Palmer. “She asked if I could find it in my heart to go and speak with her mother because she was taking it real bad. I decided to go. The Lord was with me that day and gave me the strength I needed.”
Palmer went to the house and found Junior sitting inside.
“I walked in and he said, “Dorothy, I’m so sorry,’” said Palmer. “I said, ‘Junior, why did you do it?’ and he said he couldn’t remember doing it.’”
The tragic episode eventually came to a close when Willis took his own life.
Palmer said knowing that Willis was a family friend who never meant to intentionally hurt anyone made her father’s tragic death more bearable.
“It kind of helped me through it,” said Palmer. “But all of it was just so sad.”
And now Tom Buck Bridge will stand as a memorial to a sad chapter in Milton’s history as well as a tribute to a man who sacrificed his life in the line of duty.