Retiree logs more than 31,000 volunteer hours at base clinic

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFRNS) -- Dentists, servicemembers, commanders and VIPs who work at and visit the Randolph Dental Clinic can count on one man to make their day a little bit brighter.

That man is 89-year-old Buck Zehringer, who has won over people young and old alike with his smile, friendly demeanor, cups of coffee and stories about his service in Vietnam.

For 17 years, retired Master Sgt. Zehringer, simply known as "Buck," has been a volunteer at the clinic where he processes and prepares dental records for staff members, Monday through Friday. He wakes up each morning at 2 a.m., gets ready and then makes the short drive from his home in nearby Schertz so he can be at the clinic by 3 a.m., then works a seven-hour shift at the clinic until 10 a.m.

Sergeant Zehringer, who spent 31 years in the Air Force before retiring as a master sergeant, performs all sorts of tasks that help keep the dental clinic running, from processing patient records to keeping the coffee pot filled.

Since he does not get out much any more, he said the people he works with and meets at the clinic are what he looks forward to every day. To Sergeant Zehringer, he would not want it any other way.

"I enjoy my life and the way I am, right here at the clinic. The people are the greatest," Sergeant Zehringer said. "I want to keep busy. It is better than sitting on your tail doing nothing, and I am working with such fine people. I get along great with them; we are one big family."

Sergeant Zehringer, who grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., enjoys working at the dental clinic so much that he has logged 31,416 hours of voluntary time since he started.

When he first arrives at the clinic each morning, Sergeant Zehringer cleans the coffee pots and then makes coffee for staff members who will arrive later. After he has finished those tasks, Sergeant Zehringer goes to his cubicle where he prepares the records for patients who will come in that day. Before he goes home, Sergeant Zehringer pulls the records of patients who will come in the next day, and on Fridays he delivers issues of the base paper to offices in the clinic.

By arriving very early in the morning, Sergeant Zehringer said he is able to get his work done quickly.

"Nobody is bothering me and I am not bothering the staff," he said.

Col. Dale Thames, dental services chief, said Sergeant Zehringer performs a valuable service for the clinic and its staff.

"He gives people the opportunity to do the other responsibilities the dental clinic is responsible for," Colonel Thames said.

Tech Sgt. Lizandra O'Neill, dental services noncommissioned officer in charge, said Sergeant Zehringer helps the dental clinic's patients out by processing their records in one day.

"If it were not for Sergeant Zehringer, those records would take three to four weeks to be processed in the medical records division," the sergeant said. "His presence helps bring comfort to me, other clinic staff members and patients. It would be hard to imagine what it would be like without him."

Sergeant O'Neill, who has known Sergeant Zehringer for four years, said he always has a positive outlook.

"He does things that make the day go easily. He has a jar of gum and candy that he keeps full every day. If he sees that you are busy at your desk, he will drop off candy and gum," she said.

Because he has spent so many years and hours volunteering at the dental clinic, Colonel Thames said Sergeant Zehringer has become like a family member to so many people.

"Everybody treats him like their dad," the colonel said.

Throughout the years, Sergeant Zehringer has become friends with Randolph generals and commanders who have visited the dental clinic. Those connections are backed up by the autographed pictures of commanders and generals that sit in Sergeant Zehringer's cubicle.

"I have met a lot of the VIPs and commanding generals," Sergeant Zehringer said. "I talk to them and get along with them fine."

Colonel Thames remembers a story his predecessor, Col. Brent Gilliland, told him about how well-regarded Sergeant Zehringer was as an escort for VIPs.

"One morning Colonel Gilliland went to meet a general and escort him to the clinic. When Colonel Gilliland met the general, the general told him he wanted Sergeant Zehringer to escort him instead," the colonel recalled.

"The general said to Colonel Gilliland, 'You already have a job. Let Mr. Buck do his job,'" Colonel Thames said.

Sergeant Zehringer's volunteer efforts do not stop at the dental clinic. Every Saturday, he comes back on base to help set up the chapel altar for the 5:30 p.m. Mass. He said he looks forward to the weekly services.

"I enjoy listening to the chaplain and I get a lot of prayers in for my friends," he said.

He has made Schertz his home for the past 20 years and he has four children.

For as long as he can, Sergeant Zehringer plans to keep working at the clinic.

"They won't let me go," he said. "Besides, I don't want to go."

With a positive attitude like that, Sergeant Zehringer will continue to bring smiles and brighten the day of those he meets at the clinic for years to come.