100 Years of Hustle – Remembering the Life of Hustler 'Buck' Egbert

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (12/4/12) – This past Friday, just over a week from his 100th birthday, Hopkins County lost one of its most beloved and eldest residents. 

He was a son; a devoted father and grandfather; a street-smart “comedian” of sorts; a family musician; a traveler; a seasoned miner and the oldest living member of the UMWA’s expansive 12th district; a road worker; a welder on approximately 40 different World War II LST vessels; a wood-worker and the most senior member of our area’s Woodmen of the World organization; a willing volunteer; a construction worker and renovator; a gardener; and, above all, he was a truly inspirational individual to most anyone who had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. 

What he leaves behind him is a life-long legacy of hard work, love, and laughter—traits which live on through his family and those who knew him. His name was Hustler “Buck” Egbert and, like his namesake, he was always on the move. 

But how did we come to know Buck? Photographer Jeff Harp and I were fortunate enough to meet and talk with Buck in 2011 following his 99th birthday and then again on Tuesday, November 27th, 2012. Though Buck was unable to talk when we last met, simply getting to say hello to the kind-hearted and well-traveled 100-year-old was something both Jeff and I are thankful for. And the respect we hold for Buck’s spirit is a widespread sentiment—a fact evidenced by the outpouring of well-wishes from over 150 people, including President Barack Obama, via birthday cards and letters posted along the wall of his former room at Madisonville’s Oakridge Retirement Center. This being said, we are truly appreciative that we got the chance to meet and learn about Buck and his family. 

So, who was Buck, and what’s his story? Though it would be nearly impossible to lay out his century-long life in a single article, what we can offer is a glimpse of his experiences through stories and quotes offered up by Buck and his children, Don Egbert and Marilyn Derington. 

Decades after his grandfather made the arduous trek from North Carolina to western Kentucky on foot, Buck was born near the border of Caldwell and Hopkins County on November 23rd, 1912—a year that saw both the sinking of the fabled Titanic and one of the most notable presidential elections in US history. Named Hustler by his mother because he “came in an awful big hurry,” Buck came to be one of nine siblings living within the same household, one of which was the late Carmen Fugate of Madisonville’s once-bustling Fugate Lumber Company. 

Recalling his younger years during our first interview, Buck truly puts the longevity of his life into perspective: 

“I remember when we went to Evansville [Indiana] when I was around four of five-years-old during World War I. The river was frozen up and teams of people were making their way across on the ice in tobacco wagons. I remember seeing them out the windows. There wasn’t a bridge back then. I remember eating my first loaf of bread around that time, too. My daddy went down town and bought it at the bakery.”

During these early years, Buck also spent many an evening playing guitar with other members of his family, who performed on everything from violins and mandolins to upright basses and pianos. 

But it wasn’t long before the relatively carefree and romanticized days of Buck’s youth would transform into long hours in local coal mines. 

After leaving school in 1924 at the ripe age of 12, Buck began his first stint underground. For a meager wage of $24 every two weeks, or two dollars each day, Buck dug coal from the rich, western Kentucky soil by hand, loaded it into mining carts, pushed them to the entrance of the coal seam on foot, and attached them to the harness of a donkey that would pull loads to the mine’s preparation area. Adding to this harsh environment, his daily time spent in the mines often stretched well beyond eight hours and presented a variety of life-threatening situations, including roof collapses and accidental explosions. 

While he remained a worker in the mines for much of his adolescence, and then at several times in his older age—which included employments with the Grapevine Mines, River Queen, Peabody, Pond River, and more—Buck decided he needed a “change of scenery” at the age of 18 and set out on the road to find new work right at the onset of the Great Depression. 

As fate would have it, he had gotten word that a road crew in Water Valley, KY needed workers. So, after packing a razor and a sandwich his mother had prepared into a book satchel, he headed out on his own for the first time in his life, hoping to find solid ground. Fortunately, the adventure that ensued—complete with train hopping, hobos, hard work, and kind-hearted strangers—would change Buck’s life forever. 

The tale of this amazing journey is as follows per Buck’s own words: 

“When I was 18 years-old, I wanted to get out on my own, and I heard about a road construction job in Water Valley, Kentucky. I knew some of the people who had went and worked there and then came back, so I took a notion that I was going to go there, too. So, I got up one morning, packed a razor and a sandwich my mother made me in a book satchel, and I took off toward the Richland and Crabtree area. I then caught a ride on a coal truck to Princeton, but when I got there, I decided I didn’t want to travel on the road anymore. About that time, I saw the smoke from a train and I started heading that way. When I walked up, I looked down the hill and saw a big ‘hobo jungle.’ I went down there and I didn’t know any of them. Then, a black man started making my acquaintance. Come to find out, we delivered milk and butter to this man after my dad died when we were kids. This man had worked with my daddy in the mines, too.

“Well, we got acquainted and the train came in and there were white boys going on one car and black people going in another car. The man asked, ‘You going with the whites or the blacks?’ He said, ‘If you go with the white ones, there ain’t no telling what’ll happen to you, but if you go with us, I guarantee that they’ll have to go through me before they get to you.’ I studied about it, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll go with you.’

“I rode all the way to Paducah with him and he asked me where I was going to stay. I told him I didn’t know. I had forty cents on me at the time and he told me he knew where I could get a room for ten cents. He said, ‘I’ll take you right to it.’ I got the bed, went to sleep, got up the next morning, and he told me how to get out to the job. When I woke up, though, I saw that there were people sleeping all around me and I didn’t even know it. I thought I was the only one there.

“Then I started walking on my route and another man in an old Studebaker without a window or a top, with all his stuff piled in the back, stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride. I told him I did and he asked where I was going. I told him Water Valley and it happened that he was going right through there. Well, when I got there, after all that traveling, I was promised a job carrying water to help mix and pour concrete. Me and my whole crew would get paid one dollar a day for our work.

“Well, it rained for a few days and we got behind on work. I got behind on my room and board, too, so I asked the supervisor if I could work at night to catch up. They told me I could grate the road at night if I wanted, so I did. The blade on the grader hit the high spots and smoothed out the way, and the first night I worked, I put my foot on the blade to knock a clod of dirt off and my foot went under it. A guy that was nearby grabbed me and helped me until I got it out of there, but I was crippled up. I went on in for the night and got in the bed, and the next morning a guy that was sleeping there asked me what was wrong. I pulled my foot out and showed him how swollen up it was. He said, ‘You better go see a doctor about that,’ so I went and was told that I had a bad sprain. He taped it up, and they didn’t have an x-ray machine, so I took his word for it.

“From there, I kind of just stayed around that area until the job was done and some people from my home were coming home. They were coming back from working and piled me in there with them. I went on and did that kind of work all over the country for a long time. Needless to say, I never worked for a dollar again in my life.”

Though Buck’s initial plan had taken several unforeseen turns and twists, he said that the journey reminded him that good people still existed. 

“It was that black man,” said Buck. “He didn’t have to do that at all. Back then, you’d be hard pressed to find a black man that would’ve done something like that for a white boy. I thank him for all that he did.”

And, in a sense, this early experience would come to spawn the core of Buck’s perspective on life. From farm work to continued coal mining in his older age, toiling alongside a surfeit of new people and keeping on the move allowed Buck to gain true street smarts—smarts he may have never have acquired if he hadn’t left school early on.

However, it was amidst international turmoil and our country’s involvement in World War II during the early 1940s, that Buck would come to obtain formal education as a welder on LST (Landing Ship, Tank) vessels in Evansville, IN.

While helping to complete approximately 40 ships during the span of two years—several of which are still used today—Buck was versed in both the welding industry and writing via trade courses that were required for the position. 

“I went there and they put me in school, and the first thing they taught you was how to read fine print” says Buck. “I wound up as a ‘lay-out’ man after schooling. I went through welding, burning, and all that stuff, and I was able to bring that knowledge home with me.”

Yet, with the war coming to a close and the US economy starting to revive itself, Buck soon returned to the dark, sub-terra depths of the western Kentucky coalfield where he worked for several more decades.

And while most would see his eventual retirement from the local Peabody Coal Company in the 1980’s as a much needed break, Buck’s drive and lust for life merely seemed to bloom even further once he was “work free.” 

From repairing homes, gardening, traveling, and creating original wooden art, to reading, volunteering, and spending time with family, Buck remained inspired and invigorated until the final few months of his life.

So, at the end of this historic, fruitful, and well-lived life, what does Buck leave behind? The answer: solid advice, an enduring tale, and a thankful group of family and friends.

When I asked Buck what advice he would give to all us “youngsters” when I first spoke to him after his 99th birthday, he offered me an insightful take on what success actually is.

“I would advise you to go to work to begin with, but get an education, because that helps,” he said. “I picked up everything I know along the way, but you have to be satisfied with what you get, and if it’s not satisfactory, go find something else that you can appreciate. That’s success.”

Buck also joked with me about how he lived so long, explaining that, “I tell everybody that I eat an apple a day. A girl at the drugstore asked me how I've lived so long; I told her to eat an apple every day. I had hurt my hand that day, so I told her that I had forgotten to eat my apple."

The memories and ideals Buck has left behind with his daughter, Marilyn Derington, and son, Don Egbert, are equally inspirational. 

As Marilyn mentioned during our first meeting, “Daddy always worked; I can always remember him working. Even if the mines were down, he would find a way to make money for us. He’d haul coal, make deliveries for people, clean and cut wood—he’d just stay busy and that’s a big part of who he was as a person.”

Adding to this sentiment, Don sat down with myself and Jeff Harp in Buck’s room at Oakridge Retirement Center before Buck’s passing last week and presented us with several, often times comical, but genuine memories of his father’s family values and hardy life. 

“We lived pretty close to the mines in the Grapevine area, and every afternoon they’d blow a steam whistle so everyone would know if they were going to run the next day,” says Don. “I remember back then, when I was about three or four-years-old, dad drove a two-wheeled dump cart that hauled refuse from the coal mines’ prep plant. He’d bring the cart up to the house with a big ol’ mule hitched up to it—it was as big as a house. Then, 18 or 20 years later, I wound up working for East Diamond hauling refuse from a coal plant in a diesel truck. It’s interesting to think that it all changed from horses and mules to diesel and gas vehicles in that short of a time period.”

Of Buck’s “modern” mode of transportation during that time, Don recalls a humorous anecdote tied to the comparatively subpar automobiles of the day. 

“One of his first cars was a [Ford] T-Model. His brother would ride with him, but because he was kind of scared of his driving, he would always make dad let him drive. Well, they were going somewhere one night—I don’t know where—but they didn’t have any headlights, so daddy rode on the fender with a lantern to light the way. But he got the lantern up too high and blinded my uncle. Well, they ran off the road and went sailing over a ditch into a tree [laughs]. They were alright, though.” 

On a more touching note, Don explained to us what his father instilled in him over the years and what legacy he leaves behind for others. 

“One thing I will always remember about him was that he never really whipped me very much other than a couple of times. Instead, he would sit me down and talk to me. I would’ve just as soon had him whip my butt to get it over with, but he’d tell me about what I did wrong and he’d reason with me,” says Don of his late father’s family values and approach to parenting. “One thing that he really instilled in me was that work wouldn’t hurt you and that a job worth doing was worth doing well. He would say, ‘It doesn’t take any longer to do a job well the first time than it does to do it over,’ and I have always tried to remember that. He worked hard his whole life.”

In the end, that sums it up—a hard working, kind-hearted, and interesting man finally rests while his story and the inspiration that arises from it is carried on in the living. 

Though we sorely miss Buck, and wish we could have spoken with him the last time we visited, we truly appreciate his family for welcoming us into their lives. It is a great honor to share at least a snippet of his life with others through writing and a photograph. We will never forget the stories he shared and the openness he offered. 

In closing, we nod our hats to Buck by saying “Thank You” for all that you were able to contribute to our community and we hope that you may rest in peace. Maybe we’ll meet again someday.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photo by Jeff Harp

 

1 comment

  • James R.
    James R. Sunday, 10 February 2013 15:43 Comment Link

    This article is almost identicle to the one written by this guy when he was withisurf. this is very non-profewssional. stealing stories from other newspapers. there are laws against this. gonna report it.

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