Sunday, December 5, 2010

Former sheriff, principal has led long, interesting life

by Con Marshall

Although he no longer lives in the county, if anyone deserves to be called “Mr. Dawes County,” it might be Jim Butler.

He is the grandson of Dawes County pioneers, grew up on a farm during the drought and depression the 1930s, was an excellent athlete at both Chadron Prep and Chadron State College, was involved in the nation’s struggle to survive during World War II, was the county sheriff for nearly 10 years and served as principal of the Chadron Elementary Schools for more than two decades.

Now a resident of Lincoln, Butler is still hale and hardy at age 91. Accompanied by his five sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he returned “home” last month to be inducted into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame. While in town, he was a member of the Chadron Prep panels that discussed their beloved school and visited with several long-time friends.

While he’s been through the “School of Hard Knocks,” Butler acknowledges he’s also had lots of good fortune during his life.

“I’ve often said that somebody up there has looked out for me all these years,” Butler said with his shy grin. “Just about everything I tried has worked out somehow. I’ve been very lucky.”

Butler’s health is one of his blessings. While he’s been treated for atrial fibrillation, a rather common heart disorder, he looks and acts much younger than the calendar specifies.  He lives on the fourth floor of a retirement center in Lincoln and nearly always takes the stairs instead of riding the elevator. He also participates in workouts three times a week and, best of all, his mind is still sharp.

Of course, he’s not the first Butler to live a long and active life. His father, T.J., a lifelong resident of Dawes County, was still raising a huge garden and hauling cattle in his 30-year-old Ford truck when he was 93.

The first Butlers in the county were his grandparents, John and Sitha. They were among the 50 or so members of the Sweat Colony who came from Missouri in 1884 and settled along the two Bordeaux Creeks east of what became Chadron. The Butler homestead is now known as the Ralph Rhoads ranch along Highway 20 about eight miles east of town.

Jim’s parents were living there in the late 1930s when it was sold out from under them, plunging the family into poverty.

“Those were hard times anyway, and after that happened we didn’t have anything,” Butler said. “The place was sold to a relative for just a dollar an acre. It was a big mess. My dad then borrowed $10,000 and bought a bunch of sows and was going to raise hogs. But the hogs got cholera and died. Then before long the bank went broke.”

T.J., his wife, Grace, and their three children moved into Chadron, where he landed a job at the Reitz and Crites Lumber Yard. T.J. later used a team and wagon to pick up the garbage in the western half of Chadron. After a few years he brought a truck for the job, eventually purchased a stock rack so he could haul cattle and launched his long career as a trucker.

After graduating from the eighth grade at the Rucker School near the family farm in 1932, Jim attended high school at Chadron Prep.

He had never seen a football or basketball game when he began high school. Prep didn’t have a football team while Butler was in school there and he didn’t go out for basketball as a freshman. But he started as a junior and a senior. The Junior Eagles qualified for the state tournament both years, but lost in the first round in overtime both times.

After graduating from Prep in 1936, Butler enrolled at Chadron State. The college’s football coach, Ruffus Trapp, encouraged him to come out for football. After one year of learning the game, he played enough as a sophomore to earn a letter.

The following year, 1938, he earned a starting nod at guard, but just before the first game he suffered a severely sprained ankle.  By then, Ross Armstrong had taken over as the head football coach and advised Butler to soak the ankle in hot water and put it under the heat lamp—a common treatment for sprains then and the exact opposite of the ice applications used today.

“It (the ankle) swelled up and turned black and blue. I was on crutches for a couple of weeks and then returned to practice,” Butler recalled. “I had earned my starting job back and was about to play when I sprained the other ankle. Ross told me I might as well skip the rest of the season. I guess you would say I received a medical redshirt.”

Butler said he never had any trouble with his ankles again and he was a starting guard on both offense and defense his final two years in 1939 and ’40. The 1940 team pulled off a major upset, defeating the University of Wyoming 12-9 in a game played in Casper. Butler was instrumental in the victory. He said both teams played the single-wing offense. He knew the system well and was able to nail the Wyoming tailback for losses several times after the offensive guard left Butler unblocked while pulling to run interference on the opposite side of the line. 

“Some Chadron people made quite a bit of money that day,” Butler said with a grin. “They bet on us with some Wyoming fans who were sure they were going to beat us. It was quite a game.”  Butler said when he played he weighed about 170 pounds, or about the same as he weighs today, and had “pretty good speed.”

While Butler didn’t start for the Chadron State basketball team, he earned a letter in both 1939-40, when the Eagles were 16-4, and 1940-41 when they were 15-3. None of the losses those two years was by more than five points and four of them were by one or two.

When World War II broke out, Butler left college before graduating, moved to California and worked in Burbank at the Vega Aircraft factory that was a Lockheed subsidiary. He was the foreman of a 10-man crew that initially assembled Ventura bombers and later the famous B-17 bombers as soon as the pieces came out of the jigs.

“We could assemble a plane in 10-hour day,” he said. “It was a tough job. Inspectors went over every rivet and weld. Our crew was one of the best. I sometimes rode along on the test flights.”

While still in college, Butler married Madeline Iaeger, granddaughter of one of Chadron’s most prominent citizens in its early history, L.T. “Billy the Bear” Iaeger.

“She was the best looking girl in college,” Butler said. The couple had two sons, Gary and Dale, when she died of pneumonia in 1943 while the family was living in California.

While he was working at the aircraft factory, Butler had tried a couple of times to enlist in the military because he wanted to be a pilot, but his requests were rejected because of the importance of his work. He was finally accepted into the Army Air Corps and had begun pilot training when Madeline died. With two small sons to raise, he received a dependency discharge and returned to Chadron.

The Butler family had already lost Jim’s older brother, Melvin, during the war. He was a Navy pilot and had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor in November 1941, but was shot down near the Solomon Islands in September 1942 and was never heard from again.

Back in Chadron, Jim helped with his father’s trucking business, which became quite lucrative.  Because of the Great Depression and then the war, there weren’t many trucks available but in the mid-1940s area farmers had a couple of bumper wheat crops that needed to go to market.

“We hauled lots of wheat,” Butler said. “Some days we made $125 or $150. That was a lot of money in those days. We never got rich, but it was more money than the Butlers had ever had before.”

After the war ended, Butler was planning to take his two boys and return to California. But romance changed his plans. He met Donna Sailor, who had come from Gordon to work at Midwest Furniture in Chadron.

“We hit it off and before too long I was married to another wonderful woman,” Butler said. “She took over as the mother of my two boys and after a while we had three more (Scott and twins Criss and Curt). It was another case where I was really lucky.”

Butler returned to college in the spring of 1947 and completed work on his bachelor’s degree.  That fall became the industrial arts teacher at Provo High School at the Black Hills Army Depot near Edgemont. He stayed just one year.  

The next year Dale was old enough to attend kindergarten, something South Dakota schools didn’t offer. Donna was friends with Opal Schroeder, the kindergarten teacher at the East Ward School and wife of Chadron Superintendent of Schools H.A. Schroeder and

“She thought Dale should be in kindergarten and that Opal should be his teacher, so we moved back to Chadron,” Butler said.

For nearly 10 years, he was the Dawes County sheriff. He was appointed to the position after Cy Spearman resigned at the end of 1948. Butler took over just as the Blizzard of ’49 struck.  His new job immediately called for around-the-clock duty as he and other law enforcement officers helped in dozens of rescues and other emergencies for about two months.

He recalls that one of his activities was riding in the C-47 bombers from an air base in Colorado that were used to drop hay to cattle that had been marooned by the storm. “Frank Snook (a Chadron pilot) and I would fly to Alliance, where the C-47s were located, and then direct the pilots in making the deliveries because we knew who lived on most of the ranches in the county.”

The Chadron Record reported that 1,854 hay bales were dropped on 29 ranches in the Chadron area during “Operation Haylift.”

Butler said after the storm subsided, being the sheriff was a good job. He was elected to the position twice, but resigned in early 1958 before completing the second term.

“There was just a two bedroom apartment in the court house and with the five boys and a college girl to help Donna feed the prisoners, we were really crowded,” he said. “We decided I needed to do something else.”

Once again, Butler planned to move to California and went there to interview for a teaching position. However, fate again intervened. In the fall of 1960, Schroeder hired him to teach industrial arts, social studies and junior and senior high school physical education and help Fuzz Watts coach the Cardinals’ football teams.

During this time, he worked on his master’s degree at Chadron State and after two years at the high school, he became a fifth grade teacher and the principal at East Ward. Two years later, during an evaluation of the school system, it was recommended that one person serve as principal for all three elementary schools. Butler got the position.

“I really never applied for any of the jobs I had in the Chadron Schools,” Butler said. “Heinie Schroeder just asked me to take them. I think it worked out pretty well. We had good (teaching) staffs. In the early 1960s the college was really growing and a lot of the new professors had wives who were elementary teachers. We hired quite a few of them.

“Also, I was good friends with Royce Vathauer, who was one of the college professors that worked with the students who were studying to be elementary teachers. He’d send some of the best ones to student teach in the Chadron Schools and if they got along well and we had an opening, we’d hire them.”

Butler retired from education at age 66 in 1985. Seven years later, Jim and Donna moved to Lincoln. It was difficult for them to leave, but since all five sons and their families lived in eastern Nebraska, or Missouri or Iowa it was a logical decision.

Donna, who gave lessons to dozens of aspiring pianists, had several physical problems in her later years and died in April 2008. Jim said having his family nearby has helped keep him going. There also are numerous activities at the retirement home where he lives, he’s active in the Aldersgate Methodist Church and he continues to follow both college and professional sports.

Jim Butler's sons all gathered at Chadron State College to help him celebrate his induction into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame in October 2010.  Shown left to right are the "Butler Boys" -- Curt, Chris, Jim, Scott, Gary and Dale.    Click on the photo to see a larger version.
This past Sunday, he attended the women’s exhibition basketball game between Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska-Kearney and saw freshman Jordan Hooper of Alliance score 20 points to lead the Cornhuskers to a 97-55 victory.

“I keep pretty busy and still enjoy life,” he said.  “And, I’ll always remember the good life I had in Chadron.”