FAIRFIELD — Standing in front of a display of doughnuts and Danish pastry, baker Daryl Buck watched as a steady stream of holiday customers crowded Hillman’s Bakery.

The rush has become a familiar sight to him over the years. As Christmas approaches, the crowds grow steadily, peaking on Christmas Eve, when people wind out the door.

“For so long, I’ve associated the holidays with my time here,” he said.

This year was Buck’s last year preparing for the holiday rush. Buck, who worked on and off at the bakery for more than 50 years, retired Christmas Eve. He and his wife will soon move to Florida.

“I’m having a hard time finally being retired,” said Buck, of Waterville, after finishing his second-to-the-last shift at Hillman’s. “Since I was 12 years old, this has been a big part of my identity.”

Buck, 66, had a heart attack about a year ago and was told by his doctor to slow down and stop working nights. After giving it some thought, he and his wife made plans to move south, but the change won’t be easy for him.

“He didn’t even go to their Christmas party,” said his wife, Sylvia Buck. “He thought it would be too emotional.”

Buck started working at Hillman’s when he was 12, raking leaves. When was 13 he started working as a dishwasher for 75 cents an hour.

“Back then you could start work when you were 13 years old,” he said.

Larry Hillman, son of the original owner, said he has known Buck since Hillman was 2.

The oldest of five, Buck grew up without a lot of money. However, between his job at Hillman’s and gigs with his garage band — in which his future wife sang — he had pocket money for what he needed.

Work at Hillman’s continued through high school. Buck applied to study pre-medicine at the University of Maine, but ultimately decided to stay in the area with his wife and attend culinary school.

He attended what was then Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute, now Southern Maine Community College, where he learned both formally by studying culinary arts and informally by working at bakeries in Portland and in Gorham.

The formal training of culinary school helped him learn how ingredients interact with each other, an important skill when it comes to developing a knack for creating large batches of baked goods without constant referral to recipe books, he said.

Later Buck trained to be a nurse and took alternating and overlapping medical and baking jobs.

In 1970, he was about to accept a job at a Florida bakery, but was drafted into the Army, where he worked as a baker at Fort Bragg and helped teach others how to bake.

After he was discharged in 1971, the job was still waiting for him in Florida, where he had worked for about three years under German bakers and learned more about the trade.

After Florida, there was a mix of bakery work and nursing work.

He first returned to Hillman’s for six years before he went back to nursing school to qualify to become a licensed practical nurse, but said he did occasional work for the Fairfield bakery even after entering the new field. Licensed by the state as an LPN in 1982, Buck has been back at Hillman’s for the past decade while also working nights at Oak Grove Rehabilitation and Living Center.

He starts each shift at midnight and for the first half of his work day works alone in the bakery. After three or four hours, coworkers start filtering in and by 5 a.m. the Western Avenue bakery opens for greater Fairfield.

“He’s an all-around good worker,” said fellow baker June Thompson. “And he’s speedy.”

As he packed up to leave the bakery on Tuesday morning, Buck looked around at the dozen employees baking, filling orders, and cashing out customers, said it was hard to picture life after his job here.

“It’s part of me and I’m part of it, but it’s time to leave,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

[email protected]

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