Tragedy turns Michigan man into activist
Battle Creek — Trent Buckner was funny and talkative and he never made it to his 14th birthday.
In 1987, just a few days before Thanksgiving, someone shot the Southwestern Junior High eighth-grader with a small-caliber handgun and stabbed him several times in the back as he was on his way to return pop bottles to a store near his home.
The teenager’s body was found on the Conrail tracks west of Kendall Street.
His death changed Bobby Holley forever.
Before his nephew died, Holley hoped his singing and dancing talents would make him the next Sammy Davis Jr.
Afterward, he would become a community activist, working to rid Battle Creek of crime, violence and drugs and bring attention to other social causes.
“I knew that if I was on a stage entertaining and gyrating around and doing all those flips and turns as an entertainer does, that people wouldn’t take me serious in my activism,” Holley, now 72, said. “They wouldn’t put the two together, and I had to separate myself from one or the other to make the change.”
He gave up performing, but he brought a performer’s flair to his activism.
He once took a sledgehammer and tried to demolish a house on Upton Avenue where a 5-year-old girl was killed.
On a cold January day in 1996, Holley wore only shorts, socks and tennis shoes and stood for hours in front of City Hall to “freeze out” crime, violence, drugs and abuse.
Later that year, he tied himself to a wooden cross set up in a vacant lot on Washington and Helen Montgomery avenues for 24 hours to protest violence.
He’s pushed a coffin around neighborhoods and recreated a bloody death scene across the street from City Hall, getting supporters to splatter the white sheets over his body with fake blood to make it resemble a crime scene.
“My hope is that we all can live in ... peace, love, unity and harmony as citizens in all communities, not just in this community, but all communities throughout the nation,” Holley said.
Battle Creek police Chief Jim Blocker remembers seeing Holley play a guitar and listening to him sing downtown more than two decades ago.
“I just thought what an incredible and remarkable man,” Blocker said. “That opinion hasn’t really changed as I have watched him commit his time and energy and also his physicality to a cause.”
Holley has made Battle Creek a better place, he said.
“He just didn’t just say these are things we should do, he demonstrated how hard it was going to be to do it or how hard it’s going to be,” Blocker said. “He is one of those folks in a world of anger, and social media and news being misunderstood and taken out of context, who is able to bring an issue poignantly to the front of our community’s attention.”
Holley also has led drives to change street names and parks in honor of some of the city’s prominent African-Americans. The city named a park after him in 1995.
Over the past 30 years, he has walked or crawled to Lansing, Detroit, Chicago and Kalamazoo several times.
It took him 27 hours to walk to Lansing, two days to crawl to Kalamazoo. He walked eight days and nights to Chicago and seven days and nights to Detroit. His crawl to Detroit in 1998 took him 11 days.
Candi Leibert, Holley’s friend and supporter for more than a decade, offered Holley water during one of his crawls to Kalamazoo. She and her husband, Al, also supported Holley when he spent a winter night in a cardboard box outside of Kellogg Community College to bring attention to the plight of the homeless.
She considers Holley one of a kind.
“He’s like a black Jesus to me,” she said. “He’s very caring for people. He only wants the best for the community and the children.”
Holley, a substitute teacher for the past 17 years, is now trying to create more awareness of bullying in schools. As a sub, he said he has seen students fight, curse each other, call each other names, push each other around and harm each other in other ways.
He carries facts from the National Bullying Prevention Center with him to make his point that bullying is a major problem. He’ll tell anyone within earshot that a little more than one out of every five students will be bullied in school this year.
“I see it increasing and I don’t see enough being done about it,” Holley said. “I want an end to the nonsense and pain that it causes other students in general.”
Tim Allard, superintendent of Calhoun Community High School, said his students embrace Holley whenever he subs there.
“I just think he’s a genuine individual,” Allard said. “He could connect with kids pretty well. The kids always kind of lit up when he would come in.”
Holley is already planning to walk to Lansing. He may block a busy intersection in Battle Creek later this year to create more awareness of bullying.
Sharleen Garrison, a friend for more than 15 years who passed out fliers when Holley tied himself to the cross, supports the causes that Holley has embraced.
She remembers seeing Holley tied to the cross on a cold night. He then asked her and other volunteers to go home because it was getting late and he had other folks looking out for his well-being.
“It just amazes me that he can do these things,” Garrison said. “He just tries to point out the tragedies in life. He tries to point out the downtrodden.”