'Buck's Big World' hopes to teach kids about role models, hard work and big fun

Buck O'Connor and Theresa Haas help Goodyear pilots do some tugging in the process of parking the Goodyear blimp in an episode of Buck's Big World.
Buck O'Connor and Theresa Haas help Goodyear pilots do some tugging in the process of parking the Goodyear blimp in an episode of Buck's Big World. Photo provided

EMINENCE — It's a beautiful day in Buck O'Connor's TV neighborhood.

O'Connor, the creator and host of Buck's Big World, has mowed a path down the side of a Shelby County corn field, the sky is cloudless blue and it's almost time for O'Connor's chocolate-hued vintage VW bus, Tank, to take a leisurely roll through the field.

O'Connor has built stands for scarecrows, and a replica of an early basketball goal with a real bushel basket.

Now, he and his family are stuffing scarecrows clad in University of Kentucky Wildcat and University of Louisville Cardinal shirts to hang on the scarecrow stands.

Ultimately, the scene will play out with the scarecrows — live actors, rather than the stuffed dummies — doing a little one-on-one play trying to literally shoot the bottom out of the basket.

Buck's Big World is a show that O'Connor is trying to turn into a modern-day version of the male kid-show heroes of old, such as Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo.

Who among us, he reasons, did not respond to the kind, reasonable approach to the world such men conveyed via television?

O'Connor sees the need for such nurturing TV male role models today. He wants them for his daughter, for his nieces and nephews and other kids as well. His mantra: "Real kids, real role models and real settings."

Recent episodes are all about the stuff that kids — O'Connor's target group is between 4 and 10 years old — and their parents may wonder about but have not had a chance to explore. They include: How to park a blimp, fun with model trains and growing corn, parts 1 and 2.

He structures the shows so that the kids who watch them have a bit of knowledge they can share with their parents. For example: What are the three types of corn? (Answer: field, sweet and popcorn, which falls in the category that includes specialty corns such as blue corn and Indian corn.)

O'Connor is originally from Columbus, Ohio and came to Kentucky to attend Bellarmine University. When not constructing scarecrows and coaxing Tank to perform, he is a Louisville real estate agent.

After becoming a father 11 years ago, O'Connor quickly tired of seeing the heavy concentration of animation foisted on young children. He pitched his idea for a show "teaching real kids about real places and our real world" to KET. Although Buck's Big World is independently produced, KET runs some of its episodes.

Craig Cornwell, KET's director of programming, praised O'Connor's "tenacity and sheer willpower to produce these programs."

"His passion is off the charts," Cornwell said. "It's hard to get a children's show up and running. You face financial challenges and content challenges. ... (but) he pursued. He's someone who just keeps on keeping on."

The episodes are labor-intensive and costly to produce, O'Connor said. Although he has cultivated relationships with some of his subjects — such as corn farmers, including Shelby County's Jim Ellis — the show still requires cinematography, travel and editing. He's actively seeking a sponsor to defray some of his costs.

O'Connor also tries to align his show with core content standards and submits his work to area educators for feedback.

Meanwhile, his parents — his father, Tom O'Connor of Columbus, is "Grump" on the show — help him. Sue O'Connor, his mother, was recently helping her son with scarecrow stuffing, costuming and placement.

Buck O'Connor has arranged a dancing scarecrow, an opera-singing scarecrow and a family of picknicking scarecrows who have to scurry back to their posts when they hear a car coming.

It's almost impossible to convey how much joy this gives to him — right down to the mowing next to the cornfield, which he did, he explains, because it made the field look so emblematic of Kentucky beauty.

Even after he completed his first show, O'Connor thought, "I've got to find a way to do this for the rest of my life. This is so much fun."

O'Connor feels a debt to the calming, reassuring tones that Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, gave to his audience of children and adults.

"He wanted you to think that your feelings mattered no matter what they were," Buck O'Connor said. "They were just you being you, and they were OK."

O'Connor is working to finish editing seven more episodes that have already been filmed. Future subjects could include remote control cars and engineering, including scanning and 3-D printing in which children could make their own toy.