Growing up on the family farm in East Meadow, Rudolph Stephen Buczak watched planes from nearby airfields circling overhead and developed a passion for aviation that led to him getting his pilot's license and then serving on a B-17 bomber during World War II.
He died Thursday at Winthrop-University Hospital from complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 87.
The Buczak farm was on West Franklin Avenue in East Meadow. "We lived on line with the runway, about a mile away from Mitchel Field," Buczak told Newsday in 1996.
"He was a short, little fellow and when World War II came they took one look at him and said 'We've got a perfect spot for you,' " son-in-law Jeff Fisher said.
That was the exposed ball turret projecting from the belly of the B-17.
The staff sergeant was assigned to a plane nicknamed "The Dutchess" that flew with the 350th Bomb Squadron of the 457th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force.
"His first mission was D-Day," Fisher said. "They went in ahead of the landing force and bombed the coastline."
Buczak flew another 32 missions over Europe and was awarded the Air Medal four times and the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross.
The life raft became trapped under the plane. Buczak, used to swimming in the sometimes cold waters around Long Island, volunteered to dive and retrieve it, and he did.
With his flight suit saturated, he was too heavy for his crew members to pull aboard the life raft so he remained in the cold water until the British arrived 45 minutes later to rescue them.
After the war, he married Dorothy Welch and the couple built a home in North Bellmore.
His father operated a window-cleaning company so Buczak started his own firm, Meadowbrook Window Cleaning, and obtained a contract to scrape wayward paint from the windows of new Levitt homes.
"My dad did the first 600 houses in Levittown," said daughter Kathleen Buczak-Fisher of Smithtown. She added that he had been interested in the Civil War and local history from early childhood, collecting photographs and historical information. His work on the Levitt project generated interest in that area to the point that he became a board member and executive director of the Levittown Historical Society.
The East Meadow portion of his local history accumulation was digitalized by the East Meadow Public Library, which in 2005 named its online history collection in his honor.
Carol Probeyahn, the library director, said "the collection he created is an invaluable resource of East Meadow history. He did it before computers. When you consider the amount of work he invested -- it's a couple of shelves in the library -- it's just extraordinary."
Besides his wife of 65 years and daughter, Kathleen, Buczak is survived by a daughter, Colleen Flynn of Fort Salonga; sons, Stephen of Mattituck and Glenn of Hempstead; three grandchildren; and sisters Anna Sabia of North Bellmore, Irene Thomson of Phoenix, Ariz., and Betty Ann Kirby of Franklin Square.