In Commemoration of Bernie Bucky

Williams colleagues,

I write, as promised, to commemorate the late Jean-Bernard (Bernie) Bucky, William Dwight Whitney Professor of Theatre, Emeritus. Bernie died on February 13 as a result of complications from an automobile accident and subsequent fall. He was 86.

Bernie was born in Paris in 1937, to Gerhard and Eva (Huldschiner) Bucky. In 1939 his family, fleeing the oncoming Nazis, emigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York, where he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1953.

As a child Bernie attended P.S. 187 before going on to Stuyvesant High School. He remained a proud alumnus of both throughout his life (and would often sing both school songs for his children at bedtime). In a reminiscence circulated after Bernie’s death, his friend Michael Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History, recalls, “Over time I learned the story of Bernie’s life—not sequentially, as a historian might tell it, but episodically, in the form of vivid (and never self-serving) anecdotes. Such as the story of his visit to the German consulate in New York, where he received his German citizenship papers with a distressing lack of ceremony. How this was in addition to his French citizenship, since he was Paris-born, and also a nominal Presbyterian (a measure that his German refugee family thought might give him some protection). How he once encouraged the kid living next door in Queens to go to his first audition (a story that ended with “and that kid was James Caan”). How he learned early that he could skip school, ride the subway to the federal courthouse and sit in on random trials. Or how he later figured out that he could watch operas for free at the Met by serving on stage as a spear-carrying extra.”

Bernie earned his B.S. in Mathematics from Queens College of the City of New York, followed by an M.S. in the same discipline from New York University. He then joined the Air Force, serving from 1961 to 1970 as a senior mathematician in the Research and Technology Division, first on active duty and then as a reservist, attaining the rank of captain. While stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base he became involved with the theater program at nearby Antioch College, which led to an MFA in Stage Directing from Carnegie Mellon University and a career change. “I preferred the gregariousness of the theater to the loneliness of mathematics,” he later told the Torrington (CT) Register.

In 1966 Bernie joined the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until 1974 while also directing plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. The tremendous range of his repertoire became a hallmark of his directing and teaching.

Bernie moved to Williams in 1974 as associate professor of drama and director of the Adams Memorial Theatre. He was hired on a three-year appointment and stayed for fifty. From his arrival until 1985 he chaired the theater department while also earning promotion to full professor and then Whitney Professor, leading a revision of the theater curriculum and guiding the establishment of a major in theater.

After stepping down as chair, Bernie and then-Provost Cappy Hill ’76 co-led the building committee for the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Cappy writes, “Bernie cared deeply about Williams College, and wanted it to be the most excellent undergraduate academic institution that it could be. When he and I co-chaired the building committee, his goal throughout the process was to make sure the building served the academic and artistic mission of the college.” After the Center opened in 2005 he directed the first work in the new space, a collection of Samuel Beckett’s one-act plays.

Bernie continued to apply his considerable energies and administrative capabilities to the college’s benefit. President Emeritus Frank Oakley recalls, “Having rejuvenated the theater program and being elected by his colleagues to the Committee on Appointments and Promotions, Bernie distinguished himself as leader first of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford and then of the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Across the years he was a fine colleague and, to many of us, a loyal and warmhearted friend.”

His productions at Williams, at least one play every semester for several decades, spanned from Euripides’ The Bacchae to Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, and included Six Characters in Search of an Author, Waiting for Godot, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and In a Lake of Fire, written by Marjorie Duffield ’85 with music composed by Greg Pliska ’84.

Bernie also mentored many Williams students as they built their theatrical careers, a commitment he sustained to the end of his life. Kevin O’Rourke ’78 recalls, “Early in my career I was doing an off-Broadway play in New York and peeked through the set to look out at the audience. I thought for sure that I saw Bernie. I was terrified: Would I be good enough? Would he like the play? Am I doing everything he taught me? It turned out it wasn’t Bernie…. But the experience taught me something: I would always be looking to Bernie to be sure I was doing it right, being honest onstage, and pursuing the craft with intelligence and insight.”

Bernie is survived by his wife Karen of Williamstown, MA, and by his six children, Gillian Kahtan (Brooklyn, NY), Jason Bucky (San Francisco, CA), Adam Bucky (Shanghai, China), Aaron Bucky (Osaka, Japan), Susannah Bucky (Brooklyn, NY), and Miranda Bucky (Oakland, CA); as well as five grandchildren: Benjamin and Rachel and Avi Kahtan, and Elio and Desmond Bucky.

A memorial service for Bernie will be held at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance on Friday, March 22, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. The family welcomes donations in Bernie’s honor to one of his preferred charities: Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood, the Equal Justice Initiative, EarthJustice or any of our local food banks.

I want to close with a memory of Bernie from Gary Jacobsohn, former Fred Greene Third Century Professor of Jurisprudence and Politics, now on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. “Bernie and I came from the same neighborhood in New York,” Gary writes, “a place widely known as ‘Frankfurt on the Hudson.’ The painful history behind this designation created a bond between us that only grew in the many years we shared as colleagues and close friends. Like most people, I knew him as a brilliant director, someone to admire and emulate for his commitment to excellence. I also cherished him as a mensch, which in the community of our youth was the way we described persons whose integrity and decency were evident to all who knew them well. I will miss him more than I can say.”

Our thoughts are with Bernie’s family, friends, colleagues and former students in this time of loss.