Doug Buckles, chief who led JCFD during John Sevier fire, dies at 80

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ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – The man who led the battle against Johnson City’s worst-ever fire and continued public service after his 1997 retirement died early this month.

Doug Buckles, who also served 43 years as play-by-play football announcer at his alma mater, Unaka High School, was 80. The chair of the Carter County Election Commission also served on the Carter County Grand Jury, served one term on the Carter County Commission and was president of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs.

Former Johnson City Fire Chief Doug Buckles (Photos contributed)

“As a leader he was probably the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever known in fire services,” longtime friend Walt Pierce, who served as a Johnson City police officer and retired the same day as Buckles, said Monday. “Most of the employees loved him to death, he was a good chief.”

Pierce, who graduated from Unaka High School six years after Buckles’ 1957 graduation, ended up becoming a traveling buddy in retirement. Along with retired Johnson City Police Captain Jerry Huskins, the trio would travel to battlefields, museums and other points of interest all around the U.S.

Sometimes those trips would take them “to Alabama down where his wife’s inlaws/outlaws lived,” Pierce laughed.

Doug’s angel from Montgomery and the voice of the Rangers

It was in Montgomery, Ala. that Buckles met Carolyn Perrett following a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he first became a firefighter. The pair married in Montgomery in 1962, returning to Buckles’ native Carter County.

A few years later they moved back to Montgomery and Buckles honed his craft in that larger city, but only for three years.

“We couldn’t keep him away from East Tennessee,” Carolyn Buckles said Monday.

Carolyn and Doug Buckles with their children Chad (left), Leigh Anne and Wayne.

As he was rising through the ranks at the JCFD and he and Carolyn were raising Doug Jr. (Wayne), Leigh Anne and Chad, Buckles found his way into the press box at Unaka’s football stadium, taking over behind the mic in 1977.

Current Unaka athletic director Aaron Dugger wouldn’t even be born until several years later, and said Monday he became familiar with Buckles’ folksy commentating as a youngster.

“From the time I was old enough to understand what was going on on the field, I’ve been seeing and hearing Doug Buckles for years,” Dugger said.

“He connected with the fans whether you were the visiting fans or the home fans. It was always unique, I mean there were people coming just to listen to Doug Buckles on the microphone. That tells you what type of person he was.”

The self-titled “Fat Fire Chief” had many memorable sayings, Dugger said. Perhaps the most well-known would come forth each time the Rangers gained possession. They’d either be going “up the creek” or “down the creek,” depending on which end zone they were moving toward.

A collage of highlights from Buckles’ service as Unaka football announcer.

“He had so many, though, you talk to 10, 15 people they’re going to give you a different Doug Buckles saying than probably what I would give.

“If there was a big hit he’d say ‘there’s a bad wreck on the 40.’ Just something that would get everybody’s attention. Doug was so good at that.”

A Renaissance man

When he prepared to introduce Buckles on his induction into the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame, Dugger learned what Walt Pierce and another friend and colleague, Paul Souder, already knew — Buckles was brilliant and multi-talented.

But his greatest contributions weren’t related to his talents, Dugger said.

“Just the things that he had done throughout his life and the people he had been around and touched – there’s not a person that would say a bad thing about Doug Buckles if they’d been in contact with him.”

Souder’s memories stretch the furthest. The pair met when they both played Little League baseball — Souder in town in Elizabethton, Buckles in Unaka. Both made an all-star team coached by a young Buck Van Huss, who later would carve out a career as one of the region’s most successful and celebrated basketball coaches.

Buckles with his Carter County Sports Hall of Fame plaque

“He played on the Oldsmobile Rockets and I played on the Hudson Hornets,” Souder remembered Monday.

When Johnson City initiated its PSO program, Buckles went to the Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy to cross train. The lifelong firefighter was president of his 40-member class there, Pierce said, and became the training officer for the fire department.

Pierce said Buckles’ leadership was marked by quick thinking, something that was essential the night of the Sevier fire.

Buckles was a key source in WJHL’s documentary and online series produced in conjunction with the fire’s 30th anniversary last fall. The project recently won a regional Edward R. Murrow award.

“I think Doug was probably one of the smartest guys I ever knew, and he could make decisions quickly,” Pierce said.

“He was a comic as well, everybody knew that. He was so funny it was, there was never a day that he didn’t have you laughin’.”

Beyond his “Dougisms” while announcing Unaka football, Buckles was known for his speaking ability. He often spoke at local civic clubs and always displayed his humor, Pierce said.

Pontiac GTOs were among Buckles’ many passions.

An avid golfer who loved Pontiac GTOs (“three deuces,” Pierce said), Buckles found time for more than just travel, golf, cars and family in retirement. Pierce said one term on the county commission was enough of that type of politics for his friend, but that Buckles enjoyed his grand jury service.

“He could spot out, I’m not gonna say the truth versus not the truth but when testimonies come thru there he was pretty good with his ability to comprehend a lot of information,” Pierce said.

That meant Buckles, Pierce and Huskins soaked up plenty of information on their trips. They hit the Air Force museum, battlefields and the Arlington National Cemetery burial of Buckles’ distant cousin Frank Buckles, who was the only surviving World War I veteran when he died in 2011 at age 110.

Wherever they went, Pierce said, Doug Buckles’ personality attracted others.

Wayne and Doug Buckles.

“He probably enjoyed life as much as any individual ever I’d known and it didn’t matter where we at throughout the country, the United States, he would obtain friends. There were always people that found an interest in him. He was a very interesting man. A very knowledgeable man.

“I probably lost one of the best friends I ever had.”

In addition to Carolyn and their children, Buckles is survived by three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and Carolyn’s two brothers and their wives.

Wayne Buckles has been helping his dad in the booth the past several years and is set to take over as the voice of the Rangers.

A celebration of Buckles’ life will be held later this year, once large events to remember large personalities are able to be held safely.

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