Meridian Star

June 23, 2013

A remembrance of Meridian great Oliver ‘Bill’ Buntin

Tony Tsoukalas
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —  It’s hard to explain 69-year-old Meridian native Jim Farmer’s excitement upon hearing a new story about his cousin, Oliver Buntin. Each legend is like a gift that brings back a memory of someone so stoic and untouchable; Farmer himself feels larger than life while listening.

    More than 40 years after his cousin’s death, Farmer still makes his way out to North Meridian to visit his cousin, Barbara Bosarge, Oliver’s older sister. Thumbing through old photographs, like a child stirring through a candy jar, he pauses to ask Barbara about a particular picture. “This one, when was it taken? You mind if I take this one, too?”

    Barbara nods, it’s the 13th photo Farmer has requested. This one is of a young Oliver – leaning back with his hands in his pockets.

    “I like this one because you can see his biceps,” Farmer said. “Man, you can tell he was a real tough guy.”

    To Farmer, Buntin is more than just a local legend –– he’s the epitome of manliness, the perfect combination of brute strength, confidence and compassion.

    “You see these great people, the Herschel Walkers, Jackie Robinsons, Mickey Mantles – they all had that special something about them,” Farmer explains. “Oliver had that, too. He was just one of those special people that come around once in a generation.

    “I’ve always said his life would make a great movie; there are just so many parts to it. If not a movie, it would at least make a good book. People like him deserve to have their name and legacy shared forever. It’d make one heck of a book, and I’d like to be the one to write it.”

    Farmer has already begun to compile stories into a 51-page laminated spiral-bound notebook, fittingly colored royal blue and white to celebrate the former Meridian High School great.

    The stories are typically short and are told in first person. Most are second-hand accounts Farmer received through people who knew Oliver best. Actually, Farmer had only a few encounters with the idol he holds so dear. Aside from the occasional Sunday afternoon spent at his cousin’s house, Farmer and Oliver hardly ever spoke. However, it was one of those magical encounters that has stayed with Farmer his whole life and now serves as the cornerstone of his interest in his cousin.

    By far his favorite story of Oliver, Farmer still remembers the way his uncle Ol’s dairy farm looked one summer afternoon as he stood out in the pasture –along with his father, older brother and cousins, Bob and Oliver.

    “There was a wild horse out on the horizon,” Farmer starts, almost like he can see the action playing out again. “It didn’t have a bridle, halter… nothing. Bob, Oliver’s father, turns to Oliver and says ‘son catch that horse.’”

    Farmer explains Oliver’s strained relationship with his father, whose demands were often daunting and punishments almost always severe.

    “Oliver went up to the horse and threw his arm around the horse's neck, but it shook him off,” Farmer continues. “Bob then looked over at Oliver and said, ‘Son, I said catch that damn horse.’

    “With no rope, no bridle, nothing but his bare hands, he wrapped his arm around the horse's neck with one arm and grabbed it by its nostrils with his other. The next thing I knew, the horse was subdued. Oliver had put the horse on the ground.”   



The Legend



    To this day, many Meridian natives still refer to Oliver Buntin as the best athlete Meridian High School has ever produced. A larger-than-average child, Buntin excelled in football, baseball, basketball and track while in high school. Those who knew him say if he would have played golf, tennis or any other sport he’d be the best at those as well. When asked later in life what spurred his athletic success, Buntin simply replied, “Shoot, you know I’m a terrible loser.”

    “He was almost like a celebrity,” Bosarge said of her younger brother. “Even people who didn’t know him treated him like he was famous.

    “All the girls loved him; he was quite popular with the ladies,” she added.

    Those who knew him say Buntin was practically unstoppable in his bright-white Corvette, racing through the streets of Meridian fast while going through women even faster.

    Though he only lived to be 30 years old, Buntin married three times. However, it was just too hard to hold him down.

    “I first met Oliver either in the summer of 1961, ’62 or ’63 and began running around with him,” Meridian native Son Bryant told Farmer in the book he's writing. “… He was extremely bold. We would stop at red lights next to some girl on a date, and he would try and talk her into coming into the car with us, completely ignoring her date.”

    The Corvette was one of two purchases Buntin made after signing a professional baseball contract with the Chicago Cubs for $15,000 directly out of high school. The other purchase was a 14-foot boat equipped with a 50-horsepower motor.

    Living life with a reckless abandonment was Buntin’s passion, and nothing brought him closer to that than his times on the water.

    Upon first buying the boat, Buntin took a couple of friends down to the lake to show it off. The daredevil then proceeded to floor the engine and head straight towards telephone poles which were poking up from under the water, turning just in time to avoid collision. According to friend Billy Dorman, Buntin was able to pull the maneuver twice before smacking into a pole on his third attempt. With water quickly filling the boat, the fast-thinking Buntin ran the boat hard, forcing the water out the back until he could return the crew back to the banks safely.

    Buntin would continue racing boats in tournaments across the nation. When the Cubs ordered him to stop racing as not to jeopardize his playing career, Buntin refused, opting to leave the team to continue racing.

    Most of Buntin’s adventures came aboard a hydroplane boat named Miss Peg. Once aboard the Peg, Buntin let loose, often releasing a fearless approach – which earned him the nickname “Wild Bill” by those in the racing community.

    During roll call before tournaments, the confident Buntin was known for calling out “Buntin's here and the Peg is honking.”

    “He was cocky in a good way,” race enthusiast Joey Nolan said. “He was very confident in his ability and what he could do.”

    At no time was that confidence better demonstrated than during the Southland Regatta in St. Petersburg Fla., in February 1968.

    Before the race, Buntin stood up in front of his competition, boasting if the other racers raced their hardest and their boats ran at their best, they could compete for second place. Sure enough, Buntin followed up on his proclamation, blowing past the field while setting a world record in the process. Buntin finished the three lap, 5-mile race with an average speed of 92.3 miles per hour, shattering the previous world record held by Skeeter Johnson aboard The WaWa 2 at 89.02 mph in 1966.

    Later that night, in typical show-stopping fashion, Buntin drove his motorcycle into the lobby of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club during award ceremonies to claim his prize.

    Five months later, Buntin took home the national championship in Tonawanda, N.Y.



The Man



    Buntin’s flare for the dramatic triggered resentment by some. However, the people who knew him best remember him as a caring individual who helped those who needed it most.

    In 1969, as Hurricane Camille tore up the Gulf Coast, Buntin loaded up his boat for a different cause. Buying as much baby formula and food as he could fit in the boat, he made his way down to Bay St. Louis determined to make a difference.

    Upon arriving, he realized debris from the storm had blocked any entrance his boat had to reach the stranded survivors. However, not even that could stop him.

    “He couldn’t get in too close to the stranded people, so he just waded in the water to get to them,” said Bosarge, who accompanied Buntin on the trip. “Afterwards you should have seen him. He was bruised up and down from everything that crashed into him in the water.”

    Helping others was nothing new for Buntin. In the last few years of his life, he ran a construction business near New Orleans. A man of equal opportunity, Buntin gathered a group of outcast workers and gave them a fresh start with the job – making sure to teach them life lessons along the way.

    “Oliver would hire men with troubled pasts,” Bosarge said. “He could play poker like nobody else. On Friday nights, he would win all their money and give it back to them on Monday after the weekend to keep them out of trouble.”

    A former U.S. Marine, Buntin shared a strong loyalty with the people he held close. Long time friend Ben Matthews said despite his rugged appearance, Buntin had a heart of gold.

    “He was larger than life, the size of a lumberjack and nerves of steel,” Matthews said. “He was a friend all would like to have. With Bill, there was always a surprise.”



The end years



    Thirty years of struggle and a high-flying lifestyle seemed to harden Buntin. Despite all his successes, Bosarge said it always appeared her brother was searching in vain for happiness.

    “It was like he was always looking for something,” she said. “I think he thought all of the winning, the publicity, the center stage might fill that void, but it just didn’t.”

    It was Bosarge perhaps who knew her brother better than anyone else. However, years of being pitted against each other by their father while children left a lasting stain on their relationship.

    Bosarge would often bake her brother pies for their meetings together, hoping only for a thank you that never seemed to come.

    “It would drive me crazy,” she said with a chuckle. “He would never say thank you for anything. All I wanted him to say was 'thank you,' and no matter what, he just wouldn’t say it.”

    They continued to remain close, however, as Bosarge would help Buntin take care of his three children, baby sitting his newborn boy, Sean, from time to time.

    On Jan. 17 1970, Buntin made his way over to his sister’s house as she promised to take care of Sean while he took his stepson Michael out to see a movie. Buntin dropped off Sean and hurried back to his car just like he had done so many times before –– only, this time was different.

    After getting back to the car, Buntin turned back around and headed towards the house. Surprised to hear a knock, Bosarge opened the door and questioned if her brother had left something behind. Buntin looked directly into her eyes, smiled and said "thank you," pausing for just a moment before turning back.

    “That was a gift to me,” Barbara said. “I was not expecting it at all.”

    Those two words would be the last he would share with his sister. Buntin died the next day of a conduction defect in his heart, slipping out of the world he lived in just as fast as he lived it.

    Buntin is now buried in Gumlog Cemetery in Bailey, next to his mother and father. Above the name William Oliver Buntin on his tombstone reads simply “Bill”, a reminder of his racing days and of the man some say few could catch and none could match.

    “When I look back at his life, it’s just amazing all he accomplished in that short of time,” Farmer said. “He did more in those 30 years than most people could ever do in a whole lifetime.”