“We must honor him.” Xavier renames the veterans center after Captain Phil H. Bucklew

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In December 1941, Phil Bucklew was on the West Coast with the AFL’s Columbus Bullies football team, a team he helped found and led to three consecutive championships, when the team learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Bucklew, who had joined the Navy Reserves in Columbus at the age of 15, knew it was time to join the fight. Bucklew would go on to have a distinguished career in the Navy that spanned nearly three decades. He was twice awarded the Navy Cross for heroism, including for his role during the invasion of Normandy.

Bucklew, a 1936 Xavier graduate who started in two sports for the Musketeers, was inducted into the Xavier Athletics Hall of Fame this year. On Thursday, the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Xavier renamed its Veteran and Military Family Center after Capt. Phil H. Bucklew during a ceremony at Conaton Learning Commons.

More: The incredible true story of Ohio’s Phil Bucklew and his decades of Navy service

The legend of Bucklew recently came to light

Matt Jennings, Xavier’s Assistant Athletic Director for Strength & Conditioning, first heard Bucklew’s story in 2015 while in New York City for the Big East Tournament.

Jennings then brought the legend of Bucklew to Xavier’s Veteran and Military Family Center. Glenn Welling, the center’s director, and his team were immediately blown away.

Matt Jennings, Xavier University assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning, and members of Xavier University's Student Veterans Center sort through photos of Capt. Phil Bucklew from his years of military service at the Student Veterans Center on Dec. 10, 2022, at Xavier University. Matt Jennings, Xavier University assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning, and members of Xavier University's Student Veterans Center sort through photos of Capt. Phil Bucklew from his years of military service at the Student Veterans Center on Dec. 10, 2022, at Xavier University.

Matt Jennings, Xavier University assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning, and members of Xavier University’s Student Veterans Center sort through photos of Capt. Phil Bucklew from his years of military service at the Student Veterans Center on Dec. 10, 2022, at Xavier University.

“Within a day or two we came up with the idea and said, ‘Oh my God. We have to name our center after this man. We have to honor him,'” Welling said.

During his career in the Navy, Bucklew served as commander of reconnaissance boats for the invasion of Sicily and Normandy during World War II. Bucklew and a British soldier went to Normandy three months prior to the invasion for soil samples to see if the sand could withstand all the heavy artillery and equipment involved in an invasion. He also served during Operation Torch, an Allied operation to invade North Africa in 1942 and the Allied invasion of Italy a year later.

“His story was kind of buried. His exploits – none of us had ever heard of him. When we did that, and when we started looking into it, we knew that this man was one of, if not the most distinguished alumni of Xavier University and we have to recognize that,” Welling said.

He is known as the Father of Naval Special Warfare for revolutionizing special operations units and developing their training.

“He was part of that whole transformation from a bunch of smaller entities doing special operations to a conglomerate within the Navy SEALs,” Welling said. “Because of his extraordinary qualities, not only during wartime, but also because of his character traits of intelligence, humility, service above self and how that manifested itself during his extraordinary career, he is known as the Father of Naval Special Warfare.”

Bucklew is the namesake of the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California.

Captain Phil Bucklew (left)Captain Phil Bucklew (left)

Captain Phil Bucklew (left)

“It’s about honoring him.”

Xavier quickly makes up for lost time in honoring Bucklew. However, it would have taken longer for Bucklew’s story to come to light had it not been for the Port Angeles, Washington Gardening Club.

Jennings prepared a package to nominate Bucklew for the Xavier Hall of Fame in 2019, but his effort failed because Bucklew had no living relative to receive the honor.

When he returned to Xavier after World War II to coach the Musketeers football team, Bucklew sent a radiogram to Frank Ruggieri, with whom he had served in China.

The radiogram that Phil H. Bucklew sent to Frank "Rocky" Ruggieri on becoming Xavier's football coach in 1946.The radiogram that Phil H. Bucklew sent to Frank "Rocky" Ruggieri on becoming Xavier's football coach in 1946.

The radiogram Phil H. Bucklew sent to Frank “Rocky” Ruggieri about how he became Xavier’s football coach in 1946.

“Signed with Xavier today, no choice, I can use you,” the message read.

Ruggieri’s daughter, Cathi, tried to find a living relative of Bucklew and came across his grandniece Candace Weir. After a few Facebook messages went unanswered, Cathi was able to find Weir’s number on the Port Angeles Garden Club’s roster. Weir was present Thursday.

“I feel very normal. At first I thought, ‘Yes, I’m his niece, but why would I be there? I’m not special,'” Weir said. “It’s not about me. It’s about honoring him. I feel very honored to have the opportunity to honor someone.

“Growing up, I had no idea. I don’t think he was bragging. I met him as a young woman. I still had no idea. He did extraordinary things.”

This article originally appeared on the Cincinnati Enquirer: Xavier University renames veterans center after Capt. Phil H. Bucklew