Gene Leslie, also known as ‘Uncle Bucky,’ was born and raised in Kona, yet unlike his Hawai‘i Island contemporaries, he found himself rubbing elbows with the rich and famous in the inner circles of Hollywood and New York City. Charming and debonair, Bucky exudes an air of class and confidence wrapped up in a blanket of aloha. Now 75 years old, he has the gracefulness of someone 25 years his junior and the smile of a mischievous teenager.
Bucky’s story is one of a local boy with an adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit who sets out to see what the world has to offer. After graduating from Konawaena High School in 1961, Gene moved to Honolulu to attend the Church College of Hawai‘i. He studied at CCH for two years before transferring to Brigham Young University where he earned his Master’s Degree in Education and Psychology.
While attending college on O‘ahu, 18-year-old Bucky was part owner of the Surfboard Hotel and the Lemon Tree Nightclub in Honolulu. The hotel mainly served military personnel during the Vietnam War. He remained part owner of the businesses after moving to the mainland to attend BYU, and after five years, sold his share of the businesses to his partners. At age 22, he moved back to Honolulu and opened seven successful clothing stores. During this time, Bucky juggled his business dealings and being the lead singer of a band who performed at the Kahala Hilton.
“I loved being in the entertainment world,” said Bucky. “Being an entertainer in Honolulu was unbelievable. I was doing so many different things. I also worked for Aloha Airlines. I was one of the first male stewards. I was doing everything I could think of. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do with my life.”
“After college, I went to Los Angeles and taught for three months before realizing it wasn’t what I wanted. I went through the process of figuring out where I was going next and what I was going to do,” Bucky said.
In the mid 1960s, Bucky was living in L.A. with his then partner who was the vice president of ABC television. They starred in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. “We lived in Beverly Hills and my lifestyle was crazy, but I never did drugs and still do not to this day. I don’t even smoke.”
While pondering which road to take on his life path, Bucky called upon some friends in New York City whom he met during his college days in Honolulu. “I was hanging out with the surfers in Waikīkī back in the 60s and they had taken a liking to me,” he recalled. “They told me that anytime I wanted to come to New York they would put me to work. I had no idea what kind of work they were talking about, but I called them up and they flew me out to New York.”
It turns out, his friends were executives for Coppertone Suntan Lotion and groomed Bucky to become a model for their product. For the next 25 years he traveled, modeled, and promoted Coppertone. Based out of Los Angeles, he worked nine months out of the year with three months off. In 1970, feeling restless and bored during his annual three month hiatus, Bucky started volunteering at a flower shop in Van Nuys, California.
“I became interested in learning the flower business when one Christmas Eve, I went into a flower shop to buy some yellow roses for a dinner party I was hosting,” he said. “The flower shop wanted $175 for a dozen roses and I said, ‘What? This must be a damn good business to be in.’ So I started volunteering at a flower shop called Natalie’s. Natalie was a great lady who taught me everything I needed to know about being a florist.”
Natalie encouraged Bucky to buy a flower shop in Tarzana, California and this was the beginning of Bucky’s venture into the flower business, which later would develop into his Hawai‘i Island flower business, Flowers for Mama. He even had the opportunity to create French style bouquets for Jackie Kennedy.
Bucky continued to work for Coppertone while letting his employees run the flower business. During his years with Coppertone, he worked with celebrities such as Merv Griffith, Johnny Carson, Julie Andrews, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Joan Rivers, Lana Turner, and Engelbert Humperdinck, to name a few.
Talking story with Bucky is like traveling back in time to a star-studded era of glitz and glamour. His stories are as entertaining as the characters that play the roles within them. Gene recalled the time he was having dinner next to Lana Turner at La Dome on Sunset Blvd.
“We used to go to La Dome in L.A. Those were the kind of places where she liked to hang out. I remember sitting at the table when the waiter came over. Lana asked for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and the guy filled it up how you would normally fill up a wine glass. She looked at him and said, “Are you serious? Fill the damn thing to the brim, so you don’t have to come back that often.’ Now I use that line constantly.”
“I also remember when John Lennon was shot. I had an apartment in New York in the same building, The Dakota. I was coming home from working in the Bahamas when I couldn’t get to my apartment building because it was all closed off. That’s when I found out my neighbor John Lennon had been shot. This was also about the same time I decided it was time to quit working for Coppertone.”
After 25 years with Coppertone, Bucky was almost 50 and he decided it was time to come home to Hawai‘i. He returned to Kona in 1988 to take care of his aging parents and to open his business, Flowers for Mama. “It’s been 32 years ago now and it’s one of the most unbelievable businesses I have ever been involved with.”
Bucky began his flower business by selling cut flowers from his mother’s garden on the side of the road. His first day of selling flowers roadside, he brought home $2000. Realizing he would soon deplete his flower source, he began searching for additional resources to access his product.
“I went to Hilo and met all the flower growers. I looked like a haole and had an attitude just coming from the Mainland that people didn’t like. My sister, who looks Japanese, knew everybody and decided to help me. She took a couple of days off work and took me to all the vendors in Hilo and that’s the beginning of my flower business.
At that time, Bucky was still selling flowers on the roadside and the county informed him he had three months to leave. Subsequently, he made calling cards and gave them to every person he came into contact with. He left the roadside business in 1990 and started working out off his basement at home.
Flowers for Mama became wildly successful and Bucky had his flower arrangements in every hotel in West Hawai‘i from the Mauna Kea Resort to the Sheraton Keauhou. After 30 years of business, he decided it was time to hang up his hat and start a new chapter in his life. He closed the doors of his flower business in June of 2016, yet still creates arrangements exclusively for the Mauna Kea Resort and Four Seasons Hualālai.
In 2010, Bucky started going into the local schools to share his experiences of being an openly gay man, teaching kids there is no shame in being who they are and showing them they can lead successful and happy lives if they authentically accept themselves. Bucky and his late partner of 30 years, Richard Gouveia Jr., were one of the first gay couples to marry when the Hawai‘i Marriage Equality Act went into effect. They married on January 1, 2012 at 12:01 am.
“I want to teach kids to love themselves and be honest with themselves,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It’s what you think and how you feel about yourself that matters. This needs to be taught in schools because there are a lot of kids that are troubled by their sexuality and many teachers don’t know how to help. We have so many teenage suicides and it’s because they don’t feel accepted or they can’t accept the fact they are gay. I’m 75 years old and I want to show these kids that they can achieve anything they want in life. If I can do this, anyone can do this.”
Upon returning to Kona, Bucky became more engaged in community affairs when he became president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs on Hawai‘i Island. He began sitting on different state committees and working with
the Hawai‘i State Legislature before deciding to run for office himself. “I don’t know what gave me the blooming idea to run for House of Representatives, but I tried it and it wasn’t my game, so that was that.”
Today Bucky enjoys spending time with old friends, and has recently taken up golfing. He enjoys reminiscing with whom he calls the ‘Old Timers’ from the 1960s.
“I recently had a luncheon in Volcano with my Hawaiian friend who invited all the old timers from the 60s who are still alive. Most of them are deceased now, but there are about five of us still around. One of them was in his late 80s and we were all laughing and having a great time. We all experienced the entertainment world during the same time, and oh my gosh, the things we did! We need to share these stories with today’s kids so they will know what Hawai‘i was like back then. No one could tell us what to do at that time. The 60s were the best and I have never regretted how I lived through it. When you sit down with the older generation, all of these great stories come back.”
At 75 years old, Gene ‘Bucky’ Leslie is full of life and character. He is an inspiring example of how being adventurous and having self-confidence opens doors and offers opportunities.
“I think the number one thing is to know yourself and love yourself, then you can share it with others. That is the greatest gift I can share with everybody. There are people in life who are not accepting of others and that’s their problem. Life is too good to allow yourself to be shut down by other people. It’s how you feel about yourself that is important.”
Photos courtesy of Gene ‘Bucky’ Leslie
Contact writer Karen Rose: email@example.com