As a kid in Berwyn, 5-foot-4 inch Robert Chapman Buckley used to pray to grow just a few more inches.
That changed when he was a U.S. pilot flying over Axis territory in World War II.
“The RAF had the nights, and the Americans came and did the raids during the day,” said Mr. Buckley’s son, also named Robert. “They were sitting ducks.”
During one of his 17 perilous missions, a bullet creased the leather airman’s helmet that “Lucky Buck” wore.
“From that day on,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I said I’m meant to be short.”
He returned home with a Distinguished Flying Cross and put himself through college at DePaul. While attending law school at Georgetown University, he worked nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer.
Just as he was about to join a Chicago law firm that he’d helped found, he was called up for the Korean War.
“He’d taken his mother to see his name on the [law firm] door,” said Patricia Buckley, his wife of 62 years. “He got home, and he got the letter: ‘You’re going back.’ ’’
He ended up flying big tankers that planes use to refuel in midair.
Mr. Buckley, who’d been in declining health, died Tuesday at Transitional Care of Arlington Heights. He was 94.
In 1974, he was the first Democratic circuit judge ever elected in suburban Cook County. He continued to serve in the Air Force reserves through the Vietnam era. Eventually, he rose to be an Illinois Appellate Court justice for Cook County.
“He had an unbelievable career in the military,’’ Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said. “As a judge, he had empathy, compassion, and he was brilliant. He could relate to anybody he worked with and anyone who came in front of him.”
“He was always looking out for the little guy,” said Peter Birnbaum, an attorney and friend.
“He was honest and hardworking and fair,” said Georgetown classmate John Crawford.
Young Bob grew up in Berwyn, the son of Marguerite and Peter Buckley. He inherited a deep voice from his father, a bass singer who won national Barbershop Quartet championships. He went to St. Mel High School and St. Odilo grade school. On the day of a spelling bee in third grade, he asked for his father’s watch fob because a pocket watch would go to the winner.
“Sure enough, he came home with that pocket watch,” said his daughter Jacqueline Buckley.
He took “great pride” in being from Berwyn, enjoying its then-Czech identity, she said.
“We had kolacky before sweet rolls, and we had an Infant of Prague statue,” said another daughter, Gabrielle Buckley.
During the war, when he received orders to bomb Prague, he told his children he asked, “Why is Prague on this list? These are my brethren. I grew up in Berwyn.”
“He ended up going to two commanding officers. They said, ‘I can’t change the orders, but I can change the priority of the order,’ ’’ according to Jacqueline Buckley. “Prague was bombed during World War II, but that wasn’t by his bomb squadron group.”
Mr. Buckley’s 305th Bomb Group, based out of Chelveston, England, “pioneered formations and bombing procedures that later became standard procedure for the Eighth Air Force,” according to the American Air Museum in Britain.
After retiring, Mr. Buckley studied to use his rich vocals for voiceovers. “It was going to be his third career,” said Gabrielle Buckley. But he developed polyps on his vocal cords.
Mr. Buckley performed in musicals at St. James Church in Arlington Heights, his bass voice booming out as Uncle Max in “The Sound of Music” and Mayor Shinn in “The Music Man.”
He drove a series of Cadillac convertibles. One had the license plates “HIZONOR.” His sailboat was christened “The Verdict.”
Nephew Mike Hagerty remembers his generosity. “For my senior prom in 1964, he lent me his brand new Cadillac Eldorado convertible,” Hagerty said. “I wore a turquoise tuxedo to match the car.”
Mr. Buckley liked to say, “The best two decisions I ever made in my life are marrying my wife and buying this house” in Arlington Heights.
At Robert and Patricia’s golden wedding anniversary celebration in 2005, the Buckley children arranged for an appearance by the violinist who played their nuptials, Johnny Frigo, co-writer of the classics “Detour Ahead” and “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out.”
Whether in Arlington Heights or their “Casa de Buck” getaway in Acapulco, “Every day, they had to stop and watch the sunset,” Jacqueline Buckley said.
Mr. Buckley is also survived by sons Peter and Patrick and five grandchildren. Visitation is planned from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday and 3 to 9 p.m. Monday at Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights. A funeral mass is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights.