Dover Downs founder, politician Buckson dies at 96

 

In 2015, World War II veteran David P. Buckson, center, traveled the Veterans Day parade route in Dover with his son, Eric, left. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — David P. Buckson, a founder of Dover Downs and former Republican governor, died at the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford Tuesday. He was 96.

He was an attorney, one-term lieutenant governor, governor for 18 days and a two-term state attorney general.

A horse owner, driver and trainer, he had a passion for horse racing that sparked the idea for Dover Downs.

“His footprint on the state of Delaware will be long-lasting,” said his son Eric Buckson. “He was a constant story teller. Whether it was war, politics, Dover Downs or his family, those were the things that could get him talking.”

“He had a long life to celebrate and he accomplished a lot,” said his son Kent Buckson. “He loved serving his community and the state of Delaware. He served his country, too. He spent three years in the South Pacific during World War II and came back and lived an incredible life.

“He was always a man ahead of his times in my opinion,” added Kent. “He thought outside the box and was always trying new things.”

In 1967, Mr. Buckson pitched the idea of a racing complex north of Dover that would host horse and auto races.

“I saw this one farm that had a hill,” said Mr. Buckson in a 2010 interview. “All the other land in Kent was kind of flat.”

The dirt from the hill would be ideal for the track construction, Mr. Buckson thought.

It was not long after that he lured elected officials and newsmen out to the farm for an announcement in the summer of 1967.

“I called a meeting of the press and they all came,” he said. “I put them on a bus and we went out on that hill.

In 2010, David P. Buckson reminisced about the birth of Dover Downs in an interview with the Delaware State News. (Delaware State News file photo)

“The governor (Charles Terry) said to me, ‘Buck, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Just follow me.’ When we got to the top of the hill, I said, ‘Everybody off the bus.’

“I told them what I was going to do,” Mr. Buckson continued. “I said, ‘Everybody in favor of this, get on the bus. The rest of you bastards, walk home.’

“Everybody got on the bus.”

With the finances of John Rollins and the construction know-how of Melvin Joseph, Dover Downs came to life on 204 acres of farmland. It featured a high-banked mile asphalt oval with a 5/8-mile horse track inside it.

His idea, first revealed to readers in a June 18, 1967, article in the Delaware State News, centered mainly on bringing horse racing to central Kent County.

“I had been to practically all the horse tracks in the country with my race horses,” said Mr. Buckson. “Every place I went, the place opened for 60 days and then closed for the rest of the year.

“I wanted something that was year-round. That meant standardbreds, thoroughbreds, cars, trucks, dogs. I tried to get all of those.”

The first big event at Dover Downs was thoroughbred horse racing in March 1969, a year later than the original hope. More than 8,000 people were there for the opening card. The speedway held its first race in July 1969.

“It was his original vision that led to the birth of Dover Downs and many Delawareans have benefited over the years as a result,” said Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment, Inc. and Dover Motorsports, Inc.

Early in life, Mr. Buckson had a love of horses. He exercised thoroughbred racehorses at Delaware Park as a young man and drove harness horses in the region for decades. A one-time National Amateur Driving Championship winner, he drove standardbreds into the late 1990s.

Mr. Buckson, originally from Townsend, graduated from Middletown High School.

He was a University of Delaware graduate and later received a law degree from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania after serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II.

David P. Buckson is shown in 2005 next to a picture of Lookout Dapper Dan, a horse he bought for $1,000 that went on to win more than $100,000 in purses.

“He would always tell stories about the war,” said son Eric. “He’d always tell the same story at Thanksgiving about how his Thanksgivings in WWII used to be. He said the military would drop turkeys from airplanes onto the island that he was serving on and the natives taught them how to build a sand oven so they could actually cook them and celebrate.”

In his political career, he served as lieutenant governor from 1957 to 1960. He became governor, serving for 18 days, after Gov. Caleb Boggs won election to U.S. Senate in 1960. He later became a Family Court judge, appointed by Gov. Sherman Tribbett in 1975.

In a 2005 interview, Mr. Buckson recalled the time he spent completing the Boggs era.

“I was exhausted at the end,” Mr. Buckson said.

“All anyone wanted to do was entertain me during that time, so I went to a lot of functions, in addition to appointing people to empty commission seats.”

He was not a fan of the Cabinet form of government that started under Gov. Peterson in 1969. He favored the commissions that had been in practice.

“Delaware is a small but very successful state,” Mr. Buckson said. “Every person in every form of business — whether it is agriculture, insurance or the public library — has a right to be heard,” he said. “Every person is an individual. The best kind of government is the one left to the people, not to just a few.”

He tried three times to win election to governor.

In 1960, Mr. Rollins defeated him in the Republican primary. He won the Republican nomination in 1964 but lost to Democrat Charles L. Terry in the election.

In 1972, he lost the primary to Russell W. Peterson.

During his time as attorney general, he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his argument against the Electoral College.

“I said then, as I believe now, that the Electoral College system discriminates against smaller states by making their votes less meaningful than those of larger states,” he said. “Twelve other states went along with me.”

The Supreme Court rejected him twice.

Dave Buckson with his wife, Pat. (Delaware State News file photo)

“There’s no question that he was the one who inspired me to get into politics,” said his son, Eric, a Kent County Levy Court commissioner. “I learned from him that you don’t just go through life — if you want to be an impact player, you have to get involved.

“When I was first running for my first attempt at political office we went to the Frederica Senior Center and it was packed. I walked in and went to the back of the room to wait for them to call my name. All of a sudden, I get a tug on my ear from behind. I look up and it’s my dad. He said: What are you doing? I said: Waiting to be called. he said: You didn’t come here to sit down, get up and say hi to folks.”

During his time as a Family Court judge, Mr. Buckson was tough on those who did not take responsibility.

“Those not paying child support, well, I’d tell them they either had 30 minutes or 30 days — there was the phone,” he said in a 2005 interview. “They had 30 minutes to come up with the money or they’d have 30 days in jail to think about it.”

Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who attended Wesley College with Mr. Buckson’s son Kent, announced Mr. Buckson’s death on the Delaware Senate floor Wednesday.

“He served our country and state in so many different ways,” Sen. Bonini said. “Really just an extraordinary guy and I think a once in a lifetime personality.”

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said he had known Mr. Buckson for about three decades.

“If you were at all interested in Delaware government, Delaware politics, you didn’t have to live here long before you started hearing about David Buckson,” he said. “But he wasn’t just colorful. He’s a dedicated, loyal public servant.”

Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Brooks Banta said he had known Mr. Buckson since the 1950s.

“He was a very dedicated individual who cared not only about his family, but he cared about the state of Delaware,” said Mr. Banta.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.

Mr. Buckson is survived by his wife, Patricia; his sons, Brian “Bud” and his wife Debbie, David and his wife Kathy, Eric and his wife Jennifer, and Kent; a daughter, Marlee; 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Delaware State News staff writer Matt Bittle contributed to this story.

In the early years of Dover Downs, David P. Buckson, left, competed in a harness race with some of the stars of NASCAR. Shown, from left, are drivers Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, along with the speedway’s Denis McGlynn and announcer Mike Joy. (Delaware State News file photo)

 

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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