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Doctor who was lured to Las Vegas by Howard Hughes dies at 83

When Dr. Robert Buckley died Monday of heart failure at age 83, few really knew the extent of his medical contributions in Las Vegas and around the world.

Fewer still knew that the man who was the catalyst behind the University Medical Center’s free-standing Lied Ambulatory Care Center had made Las Vegas his home because of the late Howard Hughes, the famously reclusive billionaire aviator, movie producer and businessman.

"In the mid-’60s, I got a call from Howard Hughes at 3 a.m., and he wanted me to immediately make arrangements for Dr. Buckley to leave California and to come and live in Las Vegas," recalled Bob Maheu, a Las Vegas resident long known as Hughes’ right-hand man.

Maheu said he told Hughes that Buckley had a large family and wouldn’t be easy to uproot from the Santa Monica area.

"’I’m not asking you why they didn’t exercise birth control: I want his brilliant talent by my bedside the rest of my life,’" Maheu remembers the world’s then-richest man saying.

Maheu said Hughes had been impressed with the diagnostic abilities Buckley had shown in caring for the son of a maid that Hughes’ then-wife, Jean Peters, employed in California. Mayhew said that when Buckley later found an aneurysm in another Hughes employee, which allowed a surgeon to save his life, Hughes decided Buckley had to live near him.

"I was able to convince Dr. Buckley that it would be a great opportunity, and he also realized it was an honor to be called a great diagnostician by a man of Howard Hughes reputation," Maheu said. "Of course, Dr. Buckley didn’t come pro bono."

But once Buckley, the father of nine children, got to Las Vegas, he never was able to see Hughes, though Maheu said the billionaire referred to him as his physician.

"When Howard Hughes realized that Dr. Buckley had also practiced psychiatry, he didn’t want him to ever see him because he was afraid people might think he had a (mental) problem," said Maheu, who also never met Hughes in person. "Dr. Buckley did set up procedures with other doctors for Hughes and others in the Hughes world."

Hughes left Las Vegas in 1970, but Buckley continued to make his mark as a doctor in Las Vegas.

Dr. John Ellerton, the chief of staff at UMC and a friend of Buckley for 28 years, said Buckley had the idea to give the Lied Ambulatory Care Center a separate building on Pinto Lane. Thousands of adults and children, many of them poor, have received care from some of UMC’s best doctors at the clinic at no cost.

"It was his idea, and he ran with it," Ellerton said of the man who would become chief of medicine at UMC during the 1980s. "But he never wanted any publicity for it. He turned down many attempts to give him awards."

Dr. Dale Carrison, UMC’s director of emergency services, said Buckley was a "master at medical politics and keeping the real spirit of medicine alive at UMC."

"He taught me how to get things done in the right way without being obnoxious," Carrison said. "And he made sure that everyone realized that the uninsured should get as good of care as anyone else.’

Dr. Edwin "Flip" Homansky, the Valley Health System medical director, said Buckley, who became chairman of the department of internal medicine at Valley Hospital, was a mentor to him and many other young physicians.

"Dr. Buckley’s nickname was ‘The Chief,’" Homansky said. "You always knew he was the guy in charge."

At home, Buckley also was in charge, his son, Michael Buckley, a Las Vegas attorney, said. "He made sure we respected our mother."

"In the 1960s, he gave five of his children each a $100 bill, and he told each of us that we had to give it to someone who really needed it," Michael Buckley said. "He wanted us to investigate and really look people in the eye. That was really something."

On several occasions, Michael Buckley said, his father took him or his brothers or sisters on missionary missions to Africa and Haiti. The elder Buckley visited 29 countries on medical missions. Once, Michael Buckley said, President Carter had his father accompany him on a trip to Mali.

Michael Buckley said his father recently had fallen at home, and the subsequent surgery weakened his heart. Robert Buckley died Monday at Valley Hospital.

Steve Hilton, grandson of the late Conrad N. Hilton, the founder of the hotel chain, said Robert Buckley made his presence felt for 40 years on the board of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which has a mission of helping alleviate human suffering.

"He would always be the first to go to our sites in Africa and Haiti," said Steve Hilton, the president, CEO and chairman of the foundation. "I remember one time someone asked him what his medical speciality was, and he simply answered, ‘People.’"

With his wife of 57 years, Barbara, and their nine children, Robert Buckley is survived by 29 grandchildren.

Private internment will be Friday at the Veterans Cemetery in Boulder City. A Mass will follow at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church.

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