Remembering My Dad on His 88th Birthday

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The Late John Francis Butler

(06-Jan-1927 to 11-Sep-1998)

written 06-Jan-2015

Awkward silences were rarely a problem when my dad, John Francis Butler, was present. To engage in conversation was one of his greatest pleasures. To puncture those awkward silences was something akin to a duty in his eyes. To set strangers at ease, to bring an unexpected smile were rewards he sought consciously and continually, in all sorts of situations. Dad would have been 88 years old today (06-Jan-2015). I know that my younger sisters, Robin Butler Eliason and Nancy Palmer Butler, and our mom, Florence Palmer Butler, are thinking of Dad today and wishing that he could engage in those treasured conversations still. Dad was our social director. He loved to organize parties, expeditions and social gatherings of all kinds. After we moved to Wichita in the 1960s, he began a volleyball game in a vacant lot near our home, gathering neighbors and friends, kids and old folks, students and fellow teachers from Wichita State University, where he taught writing from 1966 to 1970. Our closest neighbors on Roosevelt Court included two of my classmates, Barbara Swartz and Ann Homberger (sp?), who rarely joined the game I think, as well as the Harry Rounds family, who did play. Prior to moving to Wichita, I was an avid badminton player, though never as strong a player as my dad. We occasionally played badminton in that vacant lot, but the steady wind of the plains played havoc with the bird. Other close neighbors who played a lot included Mary Sue Foster and her mutton-chopped mate, Don, Rush Kidder and his better half (sorry I've misplaced her name), falconer and artist Don Shule (sp?) and wife Sonya. This game was so popular that even confirmed anti-athletes like John Jenkinson occasionally made the over-a-mile journey from that ill-fated house on North Dellrose in order to swat futilely at a few out-of-reach balls or more often contribute a word of encouragement ("Yours!") to others. One of the game's biggest stars (and another scintillating conversationalist) was Jim Campbell, often joined by wife Betty (and maybe eldest son James?). Jim visited my family in Philly soon after we moved here, showed us around, and treated us to dinner at Old Original Bookbinder's where his dining prowess was well-known. I visited Jim and Betty in Birmingham on my western swing (Deedy's Big Adventure) in 1987, when he was on his last legs, sad to say, but still strong enough to sing along w me on We Three Kings. One of their sons (Michael?) and Renee I think were there. Smaller in stature but broader perhaps in his depth was irascible curmudgeon, Jim Erickson (also an enthusiastic social butterfly and prolific talker), one of Dad's most accomplished protégés and the originator of an extraordinarily underhanded service that he immodestly termed the Erickson Doom-Ball. Jim wielded a mean kazoo and led the "Oh-it-was-sad" vocals in the musicianless combo that Dad assembled for a couple of memorable renditions of The Titanic. On a visit to Wichita 20+ years ago, I had the pleasure of joining Jim in an indoor volleyball game. I think it was at a church on or near North Broadway, where Jim was the organizer of an ongoing game. He introduced me to the group as the son of the man who had started it all 20 years earlier. Before moving to Wichita, we lived in Middlebury, VT, during the five years that Dad taught at Middlebury College. He and Mom turned a truckload of clay dirt into a hard-packed badminton court, with painted stones to mark the lines. In winter that court and the slightly down-slope back of the yard beyond the pre-existing parallel bars (relocated after year 1) became an ice rink ringed by snow banks, where we kids played a lot of one-on-one hockey, no pads, no boards. After we moved to Wichita, our Middlebury house got jacked up and moved up the street near the athletic fields, so that our ice rink could become a street, replacing the street (coveted by the College) that had been on the uphill side of Chaplain Scott's house (where Kitty and Wayne lived), and the twin house occupied by the Bilodeaus and Biellis. Mom and Dad were not musicians, but they made sure I had all the opportunities to learn that I wanted (recorder, piano, trombone). Dad was an avid listener, and his collection introduced me to Edith Piaf, Jack Teagarden, Aretha and Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," as well as the boogie-woogie greats, Meade "Lux" Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, along with lesser boogie-woogie artists such as Don Raye and Freddie Slack ("Celery Stalks at Midnight"). Dad hosted a lot of cocktail parties, where he played many of my records as well as his. When I was 12, I was allowed to host one of my own. I fondly remember slow-dancing with Becky D'Avignon into Dad's darkened study to Bob Dylan's 11+ minute "Desolation Row." Mom and Dad did not ski, but they made sure I learned to ski and got to the slopes frequently. Peggy Martin often drove me to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in her VW microbus, and I got rides with other neighbors, including the Biellis (and maybe the Scotts?). I learned to play chess with the Bilodeaus (Blaise, Larry and Joey). When I was 11 or 12, I was trusted to babysit for my little sisters and many of the neighborhood kids, including Conrad Zords Bahlke, Bruce Muirhead and the Bielli twins, Andrea and Adele (I would have liked the set, but Alison was too old for that). Bruce's family lived in the house adjoining ours after the departure of Grace Davis, who published stories about her cats. I don't remember whether our cat, Edith, was ever included in her stories. Edith was a barn cat from my mother's family farm in Maine, three years older than I, always slept outdoors, maintained good hygiene without the aid of a litter box, and lived to the ripe old age of 18 before expiring, nearly blind and deaf, in a grassy bed in Wichita. I was away at school, but I know Dad took it hard because he wrote me a long letter. Conrad's family lived across the street. His father, George, was a colleague and close friend of my father's. I remember George as an exceptionally soft-spoken, courteous and considerate man who shared Dad's love of good conversation and good books. Dad was also a stickler for good manners who poked and scolded us kids freely over transgressions that would have escaped notice in the homes of most of my playmates. Do I sound resentful? Dad was quite a fussy guy, son of a very fussy old man, and father to a pretty darn fussy old-man-to-be. Bruce's father (also named Bruce) was a faculty member, in the Art Dept, and a boogie-woogie piano player (like me) through whose music collection I learned to appreciate Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His mother, Elaine, was also an accomplished artist and dancer, RISD-educated. Oil paintings by both have been among our most cherished possessions, along with pencil sketches drawn by Elaine of each of my sisters. The sketches are delightful in their simplicity, mere outlines traced from shadow. George's wife, Valerie Worth, was a poet and author of children's books who at some point invited a collaboration (unpublished?) with Mom and remained one of Mom's dearest friends until her death in 1994. Her first book, "Small Poems," appeared in 1972. I had not known before today that she shared a birthday with Mom, who was eight years older than she. Nor had I known that Valerie was born in Philly and raised in Swarthmore where her father taught biology at the College. The Bahlkes eventually settled in Clinton, New York, where George taught at Kirkland College. We all attended a lot of Panthers hockey games at the unheated Middlebury College Field House, where I often sat in the first row behind the net (the only place where you can truly see the action). By one year I missed seeing the famous Fryberger line in action. I so idolized the youngest (and lesser) brother, team captain Dayton Featherstone "Dates" Fryberger, that Blaise and Larry enjoyed calling me "Dates." During the preceding two years, Dad taught at Williams, and we rented a house nearly a mile from any human habitation on Dan Galusha's dairy farm on Blair Road. One of the farm workers was our closest neighbor, and John and Doug Adkins were playmates of mine. Leland (Lee) Town(s?) was a schoolmate and playmate whose family farm was nearby. The cows spent the winter in and around the barn and small pond across the driveway from our house. Pear, apple and plum trees were ours for the picking as they were too old to be very productive. Mom tapped the sugar maples in our front yard and boiled down the sap in a homemade sheet-metal pan maybe 3' x 4' over an open wood fire. Another nearby pond was just for fishing, stocked mostly with sunfish. A larger pond had been outfitted with a very small, sandy beach and a dock for diving. Dad's colleague and close friend, Neill Megaw, an avid swimmer and (of course) conversationalist, often brought his wife Ann, along with Peter and Maggie, to swim and socialize with us. Neill taught me a lot about swimming, although I should also give credit to Williams' renowned swim coach, Bob Muir, who tutored Peter, Maggie and me. A photo of the four of us in the pool appeared in a Sports Illustrated issue whose cover featured a bust of Floyd Patterson. I think that one of those ponds provided a skating venue during the winter. In my pre-school years, Dad taught at his alma mater, Amherst College, with a year off for a sabbatical at Brown. We lived in GI Village where I attended the Little Red Schoolhouse, and later on Lincoln Ave, next to the Benjamin(?) DeMott family and the Goodwins (I remember girls named Alice and Emily). One of Dad's colleagues was a geologist who taught me to identify the Tyrannosaurus Rex among others of that epoch. As a pre-schooler I stunned one of my teachers when I correctly answered her question to the class. Another colleague was John Esty, a dean at the College. I remember John, like Dad, as an extremely funny fellow who loved to laugh and be laughed at. He drove an MG convertible with a squeak in the engine that I remember as the "Mouse in the MG." He and wife Catsy(?) were life-long family friends, with whom I again became close when he was Headmaster of The Taft School, the Connecticut prep school that I attended from Sept 1967 until Nov 1969. While I was away, Dad wrote me long letters, often 2 or 3 times a week, usually filling at least 2 or 3 double-side pages from his fountain-pen, printed (with Greek "e") not cursive. I'm told that he wrote extensively to my younger sisters when they were away at school, but of course he could not have written nearly as much to them as I was his first child, his only son and the apple of his eye, at least until I got older. I will concede, however, that he was very proud when Robin graduated from his alma mater, Amherst, the first of our generation to graduate high school and college. It was in Amherst that I first skated after a freeze turned a bit of our backyard into a sheet of ice. I remember visiting Dad's boss, Ted Baird, and his wife in their little box-on-a-slab house (inspired I think by Frank Lloyd Wright) in the country. Through Baird, I think, Dad met Robert Frost, whose work he loved. A pair of photos of Baird with Robert Frost adorned the wall in Dad's study forever afterward. Dad is mentioned briefly in Robin Varnum's "Fencing With Words," a history of Professor Baird's innovative techniques, published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Those years with Baird underpinned much of Dad's success as a teacher of writing. Another Amhert colleague and life-long friend, Bill Pritchard, described those years in his book, "English Papers: A Teaching Life," which I *will* finish some day (Mom, do you want me to return your copy in the meantime?). I sometimes felt deprived as a child because Dad did not make a lot of money. It took me many years to understand how rich we were. Dad *always* had time for us kids, and to *be* a child himself. When a broken sewer pipe sent up a brown geyser while Mom was cutting Dad's hair in our kitchen in Middlebury, sending an oozing, stinking mess down the basement stairs onto my HO model road-race and train layout, it was Dad who took charge, rounding up us kids for a trip to Branbury State Park, the Lake Dunmore beach where we spent as much time as possible, so that Mom could clean up the kitchen and furnace without our interference. To the end of his life, Dad loved children. He spoke with kids as equals, never condescending, always eager to learn. In the 1990s, at home in Smithfield, RI, he befriended many a neighbor child. Nothing brought him more happiness I think than the time he spent at play with his young friends. But that is a much longer story, to which I cannot do justice. Truly, this could be one years-in-the-making book. Dad loved parties, and birthday parties for children were a special treat. Here is a birthday party photo from the Smithfield house. Dad is not in it, but I am, as is my nephew Leo (Dad's first grand and the only one born before he died), and Dad's dear friend Michaela, daughter of Harry and Linda Grant, who lived across the street.

Goodbye Mr. Magic Man

My 1998 remembrance of my father is Goodbye Mr. Magic Man.



This page was last modified December 19 2015 21:54:21


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