Rest in Peace, Mr. Butz


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.


15 thoughts on “Rest in Peace, Mr. Butz

  1. Ben Hatke

    Wonderful. I would only add that he carried the sick in and out of the waters at Lourdes EVEN AFTER BOTH HIS KNEES HAD BEEN REPLACED.

  2. Noah Schafer

    Great work, Jill. You inspired me to write this:

    The Facepage is exploding with well-deserved tributes to L. Robert Butz. Teacher. Singer. Painter. Sculptor. Mason. Coach. Carpenter. Musician. Athlete. Poet. Mentor. Catholic.

    I was blessed to spend a lot of time with Mr. Butz growing up. For reasons that now are clear, mom always encouraged me to be around him- helping paint and sculpt sets at Lafayette Civic Theater, Jeff High School, and Central Catholic, building the grotto in his backyard, singing in the men’s choir at the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, taking his etymology and choir class and even an independent study on literature in high school… Mom knew that he was a rare man, and the lessons he taught me are still being revealed in my life.

    I’m trying to find a short nonfiction story I wrote back then about an episode we had one summer when I worked with him building a brick porch. He insisted that we tear it down and redo it when we found out one side bowed out half an inch… a side that was hidden behind a row of shrubs. I only referred to him as “the old man” in the story, which he loved. Thereafter in correspondence he referred to himself in the third person as “the old man.” He said it made him feel like a character in Hemingway novel.

    He always seemed like something out of a book, to me. He was larger than life. Though he had no children, I’m sure St. Boniface will be packed for his funeral on Monday. If his life were made into a movie in Hollywood today, I expect we’d see a tacked on romantic sub-plot revealing the “great lost love” of his life- I’m seeing Rachel McAdams in the role of the lost love, and some smarmy kid actor as the estranged child.

    But Hollywood would miss the point, of course. The old man was as virile and as masculine a figure as I’ve ever known in my life. Whether or not he ever experienced romantic love, he loved beauty. He was an artist. He worked wonders with his hands, but the part of him that will always remain in my mind was his voice. His voice was what I imagine God the Father will sound like on the Last Day.

    One of the most lasting memories I’ll have is of him singing the Christmas Proclamation every Midnight Mass. As his knees got worse each year, he got slower and weaker as he came out to the front of church. Then that booming bass voice would ring out, “On the twenty-fifth day of December/in the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world…” and we’d all say, “He’s still got it.” And he did. He never lost it.

    I had to help him out to the ambo this past Christmas to do the Proclamation. Afterwards, he asked me to set up a chair and a kneeler in the sacristy so he could see the altar and stay for the rest of Mass. I looked for him afterwards so he could see Maura, but he’d already gone home. I suppose he’d earned it.

    I’ll miss the old man. I hope to see him again someday.

    1. Brad Wagner

      I was there with you on the porch, don’t know if you remember. Bob and I have laughed many times about that job and you. I remember shoveling gravel backfilling to pour concrete and you walking up to Ken and I saying you guys are smoking as the steam rose from us. Bob thought very much of you and enjoyed the time he spent with you. That porch was one of hundreds of jobs that Bob and I did together over many years, and yes they had to be perfect. I have known him for all of my 55 years and every day learning from my teacher. I can remember as a child playing in the wheelbarrow full of mortar only to have him show me how to use a trowel. Bob was my neighbor, my teacher, my business partner and my friend for so many years I sometimes forget how old we are. To answer one of your questions, Bob spent most every day of the last 25 years of his life with my mother. Not Rachel McAdams, but a wonderful woman. Bob had taught me so much over the years, it was an honor for me to look after and help him in his twilight years. We have had many conversations over the years and many times we talked about you and you you know that you earned his respect, which was not an easy thing to earn. I was with him on Wednesday night, we talked and laughed about our jobs and the Dali Llama driving by to give his approval. He has always been a very special person in my life an I am so glad that he touched so many others. Thank you Noah for your wonderful words, I’m sure you earned a passing grade.

    2. Brad Wagner

      I do not know if anyone could have written a better tribute to Mr. Butz. I have known Bob for all of my 55 years and he would be embarrassed to read your wonderful memories of him. In almost 93 years he has touched so many lives, thank you so much for blessing us with your tribute to Leo Robert Butz.

    3. Brian Starks

      I still remember that etymology class, Noah. I always think of Mr. Butz with his nose in the air when I read “supercilious.”

  3. He remembered everyone and had so many stories to tell! It was a joy to talk to him these last months. He talked about trying to figure out how to make the chocolate river in Willy Wonka when he found out that Sr. Mary Grace played the score for the play at her high school. He reminded me of Thomas’ feast day that was just a few days after the last time we talked to him. His love for the Church and the Eucharist meant he only gave up adoration at the chapel when he couldn’t drive anymore and he never gave up going to Mass, even in the most frigid of temperatures. He loved young people and sharing knowledge with them. I am so glad all of you had him when you were in high school!

  4. Joannie

    Thanks, Jill. It’s a beautiful post to honor a man about whom so much can be said, and yet about whom words can’t really do justice.

  5. Brighid

    Well done, Jill. Imagine all those lives he has touched…
    PS: I still have my Lourdes water, too. I’ve kept it in my cedar chest all these years.

  6. Pingback: An extraordinary ordinary life | Ordinary Time

  7. Brian Starks

    One thing I did not see above is discussion of Mr. Butz’s days playing semi-pro baseball! I believe it was before he went back to for his MFA…or was it before he went back to study theology…It is hard to keep track–“the old man” did so much. A true renaissance man!

  8. Jill you wrote a beautiful tribute about Mr. Butz. He was truly a Renaissance man. I missed seeing him at Thom’s wake and at his funeral but I really wanted to see him. He used to love my peach cobbler so much. I treasure my holy water that he gave me. I really will miss him. I hope he and Thom find each other and have a great discussion. Love, Mrs. Reed


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