Jason Byassee: Listen to Buck

An Appalachian storyteller teaches that leadership is about inviting others to participate.

“I know you’re the preacher and everyone expects you to talk. But you should go out of your way to listen.”

The advice was sage from a lifelong church member and leader in the community. But I almost protested. “But I have been listening! Haven’t you noticed?” The act would have given the lie to the words. Luckily I was late somewhere and had no choice but thank him and go.

A congregation of some 1,300 in a town of 13,000 is a complex organism. Although large, mine is a close-knit church, populated by people like this man who are there every Sunday, serve on committees, give sacrificially and would walk in front of the train for their church. No matter how good or bad I or another preacher might be, they’re there, not for us, but for God and their friends and for generations long gone. There are many more whose roots are less deep but no less strong. They’re there because of Alpha, or a class on Hinduism, or (far more likely) for the youth group or children’s ministry. Others are there like patients in a hospital, wearing their wounds publicly, looking for a slower healing than what comes in prescription bottles. Others, I have no idea.

I remember Sam Wells reflecting on Duke Chapel in his early days -- some are there for the music, some the preaching, some the building, some fit no profile. “The trick is to make them all think they’re right.” Since they are.

One man I have managed to listen to, despite myself, has the impossibly wonderful name of Buck Robbins. I don’t claim virtue in listening to Buck. I do because Buck is unfailingly interesting. His hair still sits in the waves that made him dapper as a young man. His smile is half cocked, both tender and slightly mocking. Everything he says includes equal parts wisdom and whimsy. He’d have done well as a Gen X’er.

Buck has been part of our church as it’s worshiped in four different buildings, three owned by us, two paid for. He remembers when we paid the minister in vegetables as much as in cash. He has plans this year to go around and put little brass plaques up on the pieces of furniture that survived the fire of 1981, others that date back to the church built in 1898. “I’m the last one left who remembers,” he said. “I ought to do it while I still do.”

Buck served in Korea, learning everything the Army would teach him about radar. Later he did an engineering degree at N.C. State. He once told me about the transistors (or were they resistors?) he would build. His client was usually one of the Big 3 automakers. “I’d leave something obvious out of the prototype,” he said. “So they’d come back ‘n say ‘How about we add this ‘r that?’ And I’d say, ‘Why sure, that’s just the thing.’” Cue the smile, and the sparkle in the eyes.

Another leadership parable he tells comes from his time as head of the local little league. “I’d have a parent up in the stands givin’ the umpires a hard time. So I’d sit on up beside em ‘n say, ‘Why, you seem to know a whole lot about umpirin’. Why don’t you come on down to my umpire school?’ And don’t you know they calmed down real quick?”

Buck’s memory of Boone runs deep. He tells of a time when King Street, our main drag in Boone, was the only paved street in town. Pigs and chickens roamed, like the genuine country crossroads it was. Buck remembers the makeshift hunting cabin that Daniel Boone had once built in what is now the town named for him. “I went into that cabin when I was a boy,” he said. “It won’t where that marker says it was.”

I asked Buck once what he remembers about Tweetsie Railroad, the Tennessee-Western North Carolina line that connected Boone with the outside world until it washed out in the 1940s. Eyes gleamed. “I’m probably the only person living who turned that train around.” As a young boy the conductor set Buck on his lap and let him turn the train in the rail yard in the other direction to head back to Johnson City. Buck earned his nickname from another lap. “I used to climb up into his lap and say “Buck me grandpa!”How’s that for local history? He didn’t just know something about the train, he actually drove the thing.

In all these stories Buck asks for participation. The resistor customer is invited to make a contribution. The fussing parent is invited to umpire. Even little Buck himself is invited to drive the train. Clearly leadership is about inviting others to take part.

Thank God for storytellers whose tales will break open even ears that are unwilling to hear.