The other night, a great soul passed from this Earth to his eternal home. He was a good man, an artist. mentor, teacher, builder, and friend. I am sure that most of us who knew him only scratched the surface of his greatness.
I only had Mr. Butz for Freshman religion class, but he taught many things. His fingerprints were all over our high school and in most of the parishes in town. He built most of the sets for our high school stage productions, as well as the public high school’s down the road. At every high school graduation, the stage was adorned with our school’s name and seal, which he constructed out of Styrofoam and painted. I’m sure 99% of the kids graduating never even think about or realize that it was made, by hand, by Mr. Butz. He did miraculous things with Styrofoam and paper.
I can’t think of Christmas at home without some association with Mr. Butz. The huge creche, with a beautiful landscape painting of Bethlehem, that appeared in church at Christmastime was built and painted by him. He sang the Christmas proclamation at every Midnight Mass. But then, I think I remember someone telling me long ago that he built the creche and Advent wreaths for all the parishes in town. I’m not sure if that’s true. Mr. Butz was so legendary that I don’t know where the truth blurs into myth.
He knew everybody – or rather, everyone knew him. He spoke of our mayor, who was basically ancient, and had been mayor for about 1,000 years, as little “Jimmy” who he played ball with when he was a kid.
Once a year, every year, he would travel to France, to Lourdes, and help the sick people who had come in search of the healing waters, in and out of the baths. My freshman year, he brought all of us back a little jar of Lourdes water. I still have this little jar sitting on a shelf in my old room at my parents’ house.
And even with the dim, narcissistic perspectives of high schoolers, we all knew that he was a legend, and that someday people would tell unbelievable stories about him, and that we were so, so lucky to have known him.
I hope someday someone writes a biography about him because it would be a tragedy for this man to be forgotten.
Over years, I tried to keep up a correspondence with him, even if it was just an annual Christmas card. He always encouraged me to draw and paint and was always asking to see what I had created. Most of the time I had to feebly tell him that I hadn’t been drawing at all. But I always could hear his booming voice in my head, encouraging me to keep it up, because it was just as important, if not MORE important, than any of those daily chores that were occupying all of my time. It was because of him that I have tried to make time to draw, and occasionally abandon all the housework so that I can sit at the table and draw.
I remember one time when I was in high school he always wanted to see what I was painting in art class. Once I showed him a landscape with pine trees in the foreground, in which I was (badly and unashamedly) copying the style of Bob Ross, by dabbing the brush on its side and faking the shading of branches. Boy, I got an earful for that. And then a nice little lesson on light and shade.
Another time I showed him a Madonna and Child I painted with watercolors. He loved it so much that he bought it from me for $20. He said the Christ child looked just like his little nephew. I’m sure he was being very kind. But it was certainly a boost of encouragement for a very self-conscious little high school girl.
More recently, I sent him a couple of drawings of Thomas’ Chocolate Man. I knew that he would get a kick out of it and be happy that there was another little artist in the world, who will most likely be creating things out of Styrofoam. He was kind enough to send me one of his pen and inks of the Basilica at Lourdes, which he had visited so many times. I so wish that Thomas – and all of my boys – could have met this great, great artist.
But he is Home now. Rest in peace, Mr. Butz. The world is so much richer because you lived, and poorer now because you are gone.