Robert Cooke “Father” Buckner was born January 3, 1833 in Madisonville, Tennessee to Rev. Daniel Buckner and Mary Polly Hampton Buckner. He was the youngest son and the fifth of six children (three sons and three daughters). His oldest brother, Henry Frieland Buckner (1818-1882) was also born in Tennessee and served as a career missionary to the Creek tribe in Oklahoma. Henry Frieland also founded the Murrow Orphan’s Home. The middle brother, Bennett Burrow Buckner (1826-1848), joined the United States Army from Tennessee in 1847 and died in Mexico City in 1848 while serving in the Army during the Mexican-American War. His oldest sister Harriet Caroline Buckner died as an infant in 1821 in Tennessee. His second sister was Miriam Isabelle Buckner. She moved to Texas and married a school teacher, Aaron Holt, originally of New Hampshire. They had a son named Adoniram Judson Holt, mentioned below. R. C.’s youngest sister was Anne Haseltine Buckner who married a carpenter named Williams and lived in Paris, Texas.
R. C. Buckner attended seminary in Tennessee and college in Kentucky. He was ordained as a Baptist minister at the age of 17. He served as a pastor of several Kentucky churches before marrying Vienna Phillips Long in the summer of 1854. Out of his average-sized family, the father Daniel, the brother Henry Frieland and R. C. were Baptist ministers. In his memoirs, A. J. Holt, a nephew born in 1847, referenced the strong influence of his grandfather and his uncles. The nephew A. J. Holt wrote of the regional differences between his parents Miriam Buckner Holt and Aaron Holt being too much for their marriage. Their marriage dissolved and A. J. was raised by his grandparents, Daniel and Mary Polly Buckner. The natural assumption was that A. J. would also become a Baptist minister, and indeed he did. Similar to the life of his uncle Henry Frieland Buckner, A. J. served as a missionary to the Seminole tribe in the Indian territory and then was a minister for the rest of his career. Other descendants in the ministry included R. C. and Vienna Buckner’s son, Henry Friedland “Hal” Buckner, missionary in Canton, China; great-grandson, R. E. Beddoe, medical missionary and builder of the S. P. Ramseur hospital at Yingtak, China.
While serving as a pastor of First Baptist Church in Paris, Texas, R. C. Buckner created a religious newspaper called the Religious Messenger which later became the Texas Baptist and owned the publication until 1883. In 1876 Buckner relocated to Dallas where his focus was creating and establishing an orphan’s home under the auspices of Texas Baptists in 1879. This entity became the Buckner Orphan’s Home. Buckner ran the organization until his death in 1919. He was succeeded by two generations of his descendants. This organization still exists today as Buckner International. Buckner himself spoke of his nickname “Father Buckner,” saying that he did not recall when it began, but that it was connected to his service at the children’s home.(1)
R. C. Buckner was also part of a group of Anglo and African American individuals who organized the Dickson Colored Orphanage in East Texas in 1900 and served as an officer or a member of its board for many years. Buckner also served as president of of the Texas Baptist state organization for twenty years and was key organizer of the entity that became Baylor University Medical Center, along with being a member of several national prison organizations.
Buckner appeared in the famous photo taken at the Saturday November 5, 1904 groundbreaking for a new hospital to be called Texas Baptist Memorial Sanitarium, later to be known as Baylor University Medical Center. Its charter had been granted by the State of Texas the previous October. Buckner is seated immediately to the right behind C. C. Slaughter (standing with the shovel), along with George W. Truett, J. B. Gambrell, Robert Coleman, Drs. Rosser, Cary and Lorenz and others.
Around 1917, the staff of the orphan’s home had the 1820s log cabin that he was born in disassembled and brought from Tennessee to Texas for Buckner’s 80th birthday. It now sits on the grounds of the orphan’s home behind the chapel. The orphan’s home also once owned the cabin that now resides downtown and was formerly believed to be the cabin of John Neely Bryan. The latter was donated to Dallas County around 1935 for the Texas Centennial. (1)
When Buckner was awarded a doctorate of laws degree around 1900 by President of Baylor University Samuel Palmer Brooks, he was honored with these words, “When, sir, your friends shall speak the last praiseworthy words about you, they will be more desirable than the crown worn by the Czar of Russia. We hail you today as the foster father of more children than perhaps any man in America, as the friend of the helpless and the fatherless, as one powerful in utilizing the forces of this world for the promotion of the spirit of fraternity, as a preacher honored of God, as convention executive honored of men. Sir, for your preeminence in so many fields of human service, it delights me, the president, upon the authority of the Commonwealth of Texas committed to the trustees of Baylor University, and upon the unanimous recommendation of the Faculty thereof, to confer upon you the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and to admit you to all its rights and privileges wherever in the world you may go.” (2)
Mrs. Vienna Buckner passed away in 1917 and R. C. Buckner followed her in death in 1919. Both are interred at Grove Hill Cemetery in Dallas County, Texas. Their funeral addresses were given by Dr. George W. Truett. The following is attributed to Truett, speaking of R. C. Buckner: “His virile intellectual power, his indomitable strength of will, his moral resoluteness, his dauntless courage, his remarkable faith, both in God and man, his never failing optimism, his rich, deep, tender human sympathy all as such as to make his personality greater and more valuable than can be measured in any terms that are human and earthly. God be thanked with inexpressible thankfulness for this valiant soldier. One may well wonder whether we shall ever see his like again.” (3)
(1) M. C. Toyer, http://phorum.dallashistory.org/read.php?2,68745
(2) J. B. Cranfill and J. L. Walker, “R. C. Buckner’s Life of Faith and Works” (Dallas: Buckner Orphans Home, 1915; 2d ed. 1916).
(3) W. A. Criswell, https://wacriswell.com/sermons/1957/pastor-truett-and-father-buckner/
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