Big-rig sendoff bids farewell to trucking hero

Jan. 24—An unsung hero of the local trucking community was honored by fellow drivers last week following his death.

Greg Buckner took his final ride Thursday afternoon — his coffin strapped to the back of a big rig en route to the cemetery. Buckner served as the lifeline for long-haul truckers as a dispatcher. Part stock broker and part air traffic controller, Buckner negotiated shipping deals and directed truckers to their next load.

And he did it all while bedridden for the past 16 years after being electrocuted. His skill as a dispatcher made all the difference between a fat paycheck and a slim one for the truckers who relied on him — the same truckers who turned out en masse to pay their last respects.

The truckers who attended his funeral considered themselves family. They drove their 18-wheelers in the procession and sat in the family section during his funeral — a testament to how beloved he was.

"They were a family. They weren't just drivers," said Greg's wife, Donna Buckner. "When Greg was really sick, the drivers would call me to check on him. They'd pray for him. They'd come visit him when he was in the hospital at times. They were family to us."

While much of Buckner's life revolved around his trucking career, he was so much more than that.

"He loved to pick and joke and kid and go on," said Bobby Gosnell, a fellow trucker Buckner dispatched for. "He was so pleasurable to speak with. He loved to talk and share stories. He was so dedicated to what he did, it didn't matter what it was. He poured himself into anything he did."

An accident 20 years ago

In 2000, Buckner was electrocuted. The incident left a lasting impact on his life.

"That's what destroyed his heart. it destroyed his kidneys and his liver," Donna Buckner said.

By 2007, doctors told Buckner he wouldn't live to see the following year.

"He said, 'God's in control of this. I'll be fine either way,'" recalled Tony Carroll, fellow driver and a friend of Buckner's.

Buckner soon became bedridden. It was hard on a man who loved being in the driver's seat of an 18-wheeler.

"He wanted to work and keep carrying on and take care of his family," Carroll said.

But he soon found a way to stay in that driver's seat, albeit in spirit, as he steered other truckers to their destination.

"At some point, he decided I'm not going to let this get me down," Carroll said. "He tried that on about anything he set his mind to."

A lifeline for truckers

In the trucking world, a dispatcher is a driver's lifeline. They line up loads for the drivers and coordinate pickups and deliveries. Think air traffic control, but for 18-wheelers.

It's an intense job. Dispatchers must be on top of their game to keep their drivers on the road and earning the money they need to support their families — namely by minimizing down-time or unpaid miles between loads.

Buckner managed to balance all this from his bed.

"A lot of people probably thought he was sitting at a desk or in an office some place," Carroll said. "But that man was conducting business from his bed. His laptop was on his chest. If anyone in this world had an excuse not to work, he probably had it. But because he had it, it gave him a reason to live."

Indeed, his wife Donna saw her husband turn a new page when realizing he could stay connected to the trucking world as a dispatcher.

"He had something to do to keep him busy," Donna said. "He had a better outlook on life."

What made Buckner so good was his previous experience as a driver.

"He tried his best to get us all the money he could because he had been where we're at. He took it serious to provide us an income for our family," Carroll said. "With the knowledge that Greg had, it gave him a lot of edge. He could talk to the brokers and the shippers and receivers. If you treated him well, he went out of his way to treat you the same way."

His dedication was unshakeable. In fact, just a few days before he passed, Buckner was still dispatching.

"He was on his deathbed. He used that phrase to me many times. He knew he was, but that was how dedicated he was," Gosnell said. "Fought is an understatement. There was no give up in the man. He did not know what give up was."

Last year, Buckner even purchased his own ambulance with a stretcher, so he could leave the house for more than just doctor's visits.

"He was able to go see his grandchildren. He and Donna were able to go to a park and have a picnic. It was a big achievement. He didn't have to call anybody," Carroll said. "He tried his best to live on his own terms."

Trucking is in the blood

Becoming a trucker didn't come out of nowhere for Buckner. His father had been in the same profession. Buckner climbed behind the wheel at 14, before he could even legally drive.

It's not something Buckner wanted for his own son, however, particularly when the Great Recession hit.

"Back in '08, when the economy took a turn, my dad made me promise to him that I wouldn't get into and I'd find something else to do," Buckner's son, Justin, recalled.

But it didn't take.

"About a year ago, I couldn't fight the urge anymore," Justin Buckner said. "I grew up around that my whole life. I always enjoyed as a kid going with him. It was one of those things that you just can't shake. Once it's in your blood, it's in your blood."

Greg Buckner had mixed emotions over his son's path.

"In a lot of ways, he was proud that Justin went into that field, but in another way, he didn't want him to go into that field because he knew how hard of a life that would be on Justin and his family," Donna Buckner said.

The man with a million friends

The truckers who drove their big rig tractors in the funeral procession will remember his passion for the trucking industry.

"You are what you are in this life in terms of your job," Carroll said. "You're supposed to do it to the best of your ability. And that's one thing you can say about Greg. Whether he was behind the wheel or dispatching us, he did the very best job he could do."

And they'll also remember him as funny and full of life.

"If I had to sum Greg up in just a short phrase, it would be a bundle of joy," he said. "I can't emphasize enough how much of a positive influence Greg was. He was such a blessing in everything he did."

Everyone said he had more friends than you could count.

"Greg touched everybody's life," Donna Buckner said. "Greg was the type of person that would give his shirt off his back if you needed it. He would help people financially when we couldn't really afford to do it. He would always help because he said the Lord would provide for us."

Buckner had hoped to renew his wedding vows with Donna on their 35th anniversary in March. He was strong in his faith and proud to speak about it.

"Greg was a special person," Gosnell said. "God had him on this Earth for a special reason. We may not know what that reason was. He had to touch someone's heart before God brought him home."

Dispatching came naturally to Buckner.

"He was talkative and friendly. He never met a stranger," Greg's son, Justin, said. "He was a very open man."

While the trucking industry was among Buckner's passions, it wasn't his only one. He and Donna ran a haunted house in Asheville at one point.

"Greg loved it," Donna Buckner said. "He lived for the haunted house. He loved scaring people. That was one of the dreams he always had. He wanted to own a haunted house and he got to live out that dream."

And she wasn't the only one who could attest to his love of spooking folks.

"In life, he and his wife they ran a haunted house years ago in Asheville," Carroll said. "He really liked that kind of stuff with ghosts and haunted houses. He told me one time he loved that almost as much as he did the trucking. He loved to give someone a little bit of a scare. You could see it when he talked about it."

He had a personality like no other.

"When he was able to be upright and going, he stood between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7," Gosnell said. "He was a huge man, but his personality was even bigger than the ginormous man he was. He was easy to bond with."

Carroll said Buckner meant the things he said and would give it to you straight. You never questioned where you stood with the man.

"If he called you a friend, he meant it. If he told you he loved you, he meant it," he said. "He really was a good man. I really miss him."