A man who faithfully and tirelessly served his nation, his state and his county, O.L. “Buck” McCullen died Saturday at the age of 86, concluding a rich life dedicated to helping and protecting others and leaving a legacy of selflessness his friends and close colleagues recalled in the wake of his passing.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, McCullen served with the N.C. Highway Patrol for 34 years, from 1951 until he retired in 1985. And, even in retirement, McCullen sought to make his community a better place and was elected sheriff of Sampson County, serving in that capacity from 1990 until 2002. He chose to retire for good during his third consecutive term, opting not to seek a fourth.
Gerald Tadlock, who served alongside McCullen with the Sheriff’s Office, said his sheriff was a great man, not just as the top law enforcement officer of the county but as a close personal friend.
“He will be greatly missed, by me especially,” said Tadlock. “Buck McCullen was one of the finest men I have ever known, both professionally and as a friend also. I worked with him closely for 12 years in law enforcement. He was just a good man. Even when he retired, I would see him or talk to him every week.”
Tadlock was McCullen’s captain for 11 years. The captain recalled the many instances where Samaritan Buck would help somebody who needed it. While he keeps the specifics close to the vest, he said there were acts of generosity and kindness that still blow him away when he thinks about them.
“There were so many things Buck McCullen did for people when he was sheriff, and then when he retired, that people don’t know about. There were just so many good things he did for the people of this county that were never publicized,” said Tadlock. “When he was with the Sheriff’s Office or even with the Highway Patrol, he never sought publicity. He didn’t look for the limelight.”
That is how Buck wanted it. For the sheriff and longtime patrolman, he was content to know he helped, and took comfort in knowing that someone’s life was made a little better as a result. When he was sheriff, there was an “open-door policy” for the people of Sampson County, Tadlock said.
“He was a gentleman, a good man to work for and very professional,” said Tadlock. “He wanted the department run in a professional manner. He was a well-respected sheriff. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him.”
Carlton Albritton echoed that sentiment. A longtime Highway Patrol trooper, Albritton has known McCullen since the 1950s, when he was a young boy jokingly chucking rocks toward McCullen’s “meticulous” patrol car in Greene County. Through a strange twist of fate, the two would come to know each other and work together at Troop B-2 in Sampson from 1978-85.
“He was top of the line,” said Albritton. “I’ve known him since he worked in Greene County, where I’m from. He was born and raised around Newton Grove, so he started working in my county and when I got into the Highway Patrol, I started working in his county.”
Albritton went into the Highway Patrol in 1963, moving to Sampson and staying here throughout his 30-year career, retiring in 1992. He spent his last decade on the patrol as a line sergeant, receiving his promotion from trooper during McCullen’s tenure as first sergeant for Sampson. Following Greene County, McCullen served stints on the patrol in Wilmington, Fayetteville and Pender County. In 1978, he was promoted to first sergeant and stayed in Sampson for about six years before being promoted again to lieutenant, at which point he worked in Fayetteville until his retirement a short time later.
During his time in Sampson, Albritton recalled, McCullen was a diplomatic and hard-working man, who expected his troopers to devote themselves to their jobs because he was doing the same. He respected the men who worked for him, and garnered the same respect and admiration as a result.
“He was man who, if I disagreed with him, I could sit down and talk to him about it and he would listen to you. That’s how he was with me,” said Albritton. “All he wanted you to do is work eight full hours for the state. He was good to work for, all you had to do was do your job. That’s all he expected.”
From those times in Greene County when he was a young kid and McCullen was a young trooper to the times in the last several months, when Albritton would talk to Buck — or his wife, Carol — every week to see how he was doing, notably after his last trip to the hospital in September, the trooper said he has respected and cared for the man.
“He’s been a friend of mine for as long as I can remember,” said Albritton. “We go a ways back. You can’t say anything bad about him.”
Tadlock relayed the same kind of relationship.
Although it has been more than a decade since they worked together within the Sheriff’s Office, then headquartered at the old offices on Elizabeth Street, McCullen and Tadlock were still captain and sheriff until the day Buck passed. They were rankings the men mutually respected — Tadlock said he never thought to do otherwise. Buck was sheriff.
“Even when he retired, he called me captain and I called him sheriff,” said Tadlock. “That’s the relationship we kept right up until the day he died.”
He never thought to do otherwise. More than a sheriff or a patrolman, Buck was also a man of faith and a devoted member of First Baptist Church and its “Backsliders” Sunday School Class.
Frank Boyette came to know McCullen well in his later years through “Backsliders” — Albritton was also part of the group — and said Buck had a strong air of individuality, while still doing everything he could for his fellow man.
“He was an individual, his own man, but he fit in so well with everyone else,” said Boyette. “He was a super guy. We got to be close friends through Backsliders. It’s a close-knit group and, of course, it hurt all the guys when we heard about (his passing).”
The Backsliders Sunday School class is made up men who are tenured members of First Baptist Church. While its membership is 23, its average attendance each week is around 12-15, with many getting to the age where they cannot make it to the class every week. Boyette said, despite the attendance, every member of the group is there for their fellow man and group member.
Buck epitomized that ideal.
“If you need someone you can call on one of those guys, and that’s the kind of guy Buck was. If you needed anything, you could call on Buck,” said Boyette. “He was a man’s man. Everyone loved him.”
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, who directly succeeded McCullen in the post, also paid his respects to the man who he said served Sampson well, and asked that others keep his family in their prayers.
“He served his state and Sampson County honorably through his career as a law enforcement officer,” Thornton wrote in an online post Saturday. “My prayers are with his family as they mourn the loss of a husband, father and friend. I ask that each of you keep the family in your prayers as well.”
Tadlock said he spoke with McCullen’s wife, Carol, on Friday night hours before Buck would pass. He said the family would miss their beloved patriarch immensely. And, just as the family mourns, many in Sampson’s hearts dipped with the passing of a man who personified what it was to protect and serve.
“I’m still kind of stunned by his death. I was not expecting him to die. Sometimes you think someone’s going to live forever, and that’s how I thought of Buck,” Tadlock said. “But now he’s dead and gone, bless his heart. I’m going to miss that man. He was a good man and a good friend.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.