Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Diverse Life: Jim Butler celebrates 98 years

by Larry Miller

1917 was a pretty tough year in the Great Plains.  It was actually pretty tough everywhere. 

War was raging in Europe, and the United States was drawing ever closer to becoming ensnarled in it. 

Too, a Spanish Flu epidemic was in its infancy and would claim more than 20 million lives worldwide by 1920 – some 500,000 of them in the United States. 

Being a dirt farmer in Dawes County Nebraska probably didn’t seem so bad for Thomas Jefferson Butler and his wife, Grace Brown Butler.  Working the land on his dad’s place about eight miles southeast of Chadron likely offered the prospect of providing a good life.    

“T.J.,” as he became known, was a native Nebraskan, born of parents who’d come from Missouri and Indiana.  He had married Grace Brown, whose ancestors came from Wisconsin and Iowa, and they would raise their family in the vicinity of Bordeaux Creek.

Jim Butler remembers his father:

Their first child, Melvin, was born in May 1917.   Three weeks later General “Blackjack” Pershing was leading U.S. forces in Europe as they joined the British, French and Russian forces in an effort to counter Germany and the Axis Powers.

The American entry into the was was critical – and timely.  Within eighteen months – and after the loss of some 17 million lives – World War One ended with the signing of an Armistice on November 11, 1918.

And Grace Butler, pregnant with her second child James LeRoy, had reason for some optimism about the future.  The war was over, and a new child was about to begin life  at their place along Bordeaux Creek.

Born on Bordeaux Creek and early education:

Jim Butler had never seen a football or basketball game when he headed for high school in Chadron.  No matter, there seemed to be no time for such activities anyway.  Every day, Jim and his older brother had to return home promptly after school to do their farm chores.  There was no time for sports.  They were, after all, country kids.    

The following year, a new coach arrived at the Normal School – and Chadron Prep.  While there was no football played at Prep in those years, the fortunes of their basketball team began to change.  And so did the circumstances of the Butler boys.  

Prep’s basketball team had been beaten by about everyone, including Whitney,” Butler recalled.  When Ross Armstrong arrived on campus in 1933, teams began to see some real improvement.

Both my brother Melvin and I were able to go out for basketball, and we made the squad.  We got beat in the district finals, keeping us out of the state tournament.  But when I was a Junior and Senior, Ross took us to state both years, but got beat in overtime.  We would have won the first year, but Joe O’Rourke and and another of our big scorers were sick and couldn’t play.”

I graduated from Prep in 1936.  In past summers, I had worked a bit for Rufus Trapp, the football coach at the Normal.  He had a place out on Big Bordeaux, and he’d have me fix fence, shock grain, or whatever needed to be done.   When I started college, he talked me in to playing football for him.”

Jim Butler was a standout athlete at Chadron Prep and Chadron State, despite the fact that he’d never seen a football or basketball game before he started high school at Prep.  After his college years he also played baseball with the Chadron Elks in their heyday.

I had never played football before college, so the first year was one of learning the game.  I played enough at guard my second year to earn my letter.  We also won the Nebraska college championship.”

Armstrong took over as football coach the next two years, and Jim Butler became a starting guard for the Eagles, winning Honorable Mention in the Nebraska college conference.  And his prowess at linebacker was considered key in the 12-9 football win over Wyoming in 1940.   He was also a standout basketball player for the college – a member of the powerhouse team of 1940 that shared the conference crown with Peru and included other well-known athletes like Bill Bruer, Dale Tangeman, and Bob Baumann.

But sports wasn’t the only thing capturing his attention.

In college, he met and started dating a Chadron girl, Madeline Iaeger. 

Undated photo - Madeline Iaeger Butler
She went to Chadron High and I went to Prep.  I didn’t know her until we were in college.   Her grandfather was Louis Iaeger, a local pioneer who was pretty well known as ‘Billy the Bear.’” 

Louis J.F. Iaeger was a native Pennsylvanian whose 19th century adventures included earning a navigator’s certificate at a young age, shipping out as a quartermaster aboard vessels sailing from San Francisco to the Orient, and a stint with the Buffalo Bill Company, playing the part of a bear – thus the nickname “Billy the Bear.”  His, too, is an interesting story, which you’ll find within this biographical sketch of Louis Iaeger.

Madeline Iaeger and Jim Butler were married in 1940, and in 1941 their first child – Gary – was born.

Europe again was in turmoil, with Germany on the march across Europe, Asia and Africa.  The United States had avoided direct involvement in the war, but with the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in early 1941, American industry shifted to a war-time footing that would vastly increase the production of aircraft, ships, and other war materials for the Allies.

Jim Butler’s older brother, Melvin, joined the Navy and became a pilot.  He had gone through the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program at Chadron State and Snook Air Service at the Chadron airport.  He completed his military training at Pensacola, Florida and San Diego before joining the Pacific Fleet as pilot of a patrol bomber.  Ensign Butler was stationed about a year at Honolulu and survived the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

Jim Butler and Madeline had already moved from Chadron to California. 

Her parents moved there earlier, and “I needed a job, and so we moved there, too, and I went to work for the Vega Aircraft Company,” Butler recalled.   The Vega plant in Burbank was a major production facility for Allied patrol bombers.

In a short time, I was foreman of a 10-man crew building those bombers.  Although I wanted to join the service, they wouldn’t relieve me from my job.  Apparently, we were doing what others couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

In September 1942 came the bad news that Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Melvin Butler was reported lost at sea during flight operations in the Pacific.  News of the incident was delayed for several weeks; a story about the incident appeared in the November 27, 1942 edition of the Lincoln Evening Journal, after the Butler family had been notified.  Word then came that his aircraft had been shot down near the Solomon Islands in the western Pacific.  Lieutenant Butler was never found.  He was 25 years old.

Perhaps that’s when Jim Butler conjured his own plans for joining the service.  But getting released from a critical wartime job in an aircraft factory was no easy matter.  He continued to work at Vega Aircraft.  Then in September 1943, Jim and Madeline Butler’s second son, Dale, was born.

Finally wangling a release from the aircraft company, the young Butler family pulled up stakes and journeyed back to Nebraska in the dead of winter. 

We ran in to a really big snowstorm between Rock Springs and Rawlins.  We had no heater in the car, and I was really glad to see the lights of Rawlins!”

After returning his family to Chadron, Butler went to Denver to enlist in the Army Air Corps.

Undated photo of Jim Butler and his dad 
I passed the test for pilot and bombardier.  Like his brother, Jim Butler had already gone through the CPT program when he was a student at Chadron State and worked at the Chadron airport for long-time aviator Frank Snook.

That’s how I got my pilot’s license,” Butler recalled.

His official enlistment took place at Fort Logan , Colorado in late January 1944.

When I went in to the service and started training, Madeline and Dale went back to California to be with her folks.  Gary stayed with my folks in Nebraska.”

In California, Madeline landed a good job, but one that was very demanding.

She was a smart gal.  Her major was chemistry.

I was away in Texas taking pilot training…and I got a letter from her mother that Madeline was in the hospital with pneumonia.  And even before I could respond, I got a telegram that she had died.  It was a tough deal.

That was in January 1945, and the war was winding down.  The fighting in Europe officially ended with “VE (Victory in Europe) Day on May 8.

As soon as the Air Corps found out that I had two kids, and that my wife had died – and of course I had lost my brother, too – they started talking about discharge.  I was released from active duty in May 1945.”

Butler returned to Chadron.  But the end of the war meant an abundance of returning G.I.’s, and not a lot of jobs to be had.  And he had little appetite at that time to return to college.

He was thinking more and more that he’d simply go back to California where there were more jobs.

Donna Sailor Butler
But my dad wanted me to work in the trucking business with him, and so I did.  Factories had been building military equipment during the war, so there just weren’t many trucks for farmers to get their crops to market.  We could haul wheat all winter long…we made good money.  Golly, I could make $100 or $125 a day.  That was big money in those days!”

While attending a dance at the Kelso Pavilion east of Chadron, his friend Pat Muldoon introduced Jim to Donna Sailor.  They began dating and she helped persuade him that he should go back and finish college.

And he did just that, quickly completing the work necessary to take his Bachelor of Science degree in Education (Industrial Arts) from Chadron State in 1946.  He also took a new bride that year, when he and Donna were married.  

A former teammate of mine, Dale Tangeman, was Superintendent of the school at Igloo, South Dakota.   There was a big Army Ordnance depot there, and Dale needed a football coach and someone to teach shop.  It was a big place, and there were really some great kids there.

After a year at Igloo, the Butlers were back in Chadron, and they had a new son, Scott. 

Through an unusual set of circumstances, Jim Butler found himself in a quick career change.  From a shop teacher and coach to………Dawes County Sheriff?

Jim Butler – Lawman:

That’s exactly what happened as Jim and Donna Butler and their growing family of boys took up residence on the top floor of the County Courthouse during the blizzard of 1949.

The county commissioners appointed him to complete the unexpired term of Sheriff Cy Spearman.    The Butler’s apartment in the courthouse had two tiny bedrooms, and a very small living room and kitchen. 

As their family grew with the births of twin boys, Criss and Curt, the living accommodations became too crowded – even with oldest son Gary living with his Butler grandparents.

Butler acknowledges that he enjoyed most aspects of serving as Sheriff.  And the citizens of Dawes County were pleased with him.  He was elected to two subsequent terms in office.
The Butler’s were looking for a change.  And – after 10 years in the courthouse – it came.

Lawman Butler traded his badge for a classroom at East Ward Elementary School, first as a teacher – then as Principal.

I then got my Master’s degree at Chadron State and also attended summer school one year at the University of Iowa.  I also went to Western State in Colorado and earned a Specialist in Education certificate.  I thought we might go to Colorado.”

But as it turned out, their destiny remained in Chadron, where Jim Butler would remain for 26 years in the public school system.

I was offered a contract to go to Sheridan, Wyoming, but Chadron superintendent Heine Schroeder asked me how much they were offering me.   He said he’d match it.  So we stayed.  Donna and the kids were real happy about that.”

Jim Butler seems to have enjoyed just about everything he’s pursued.

He quickly admits that his greatest joy, however, was his years within the Chadron Public Schools. 

Jim Butler:  "I always looked forward to going to work."

But both Jim and Donna Butler pursued other interests as well.

She was a remarkable musician and is well remembered as a highly-popular piano teacher for many years. 

I absolutely loved to hear Donna play the piano.  She played by ear, and she also taught herself to play the organ.  Our favorite songs were ‘Stardust’ and ‘Deep Purple.’”

And Jim Butler sings Donna’s praises – not just as a highly-talented musician – but as a loving mother.

He recalled one of his more challenging moments as a young parent, when his son, Dale, was born in California in 1943….and how his second wife Donna later would help them overcome adversity.

Over the years, Donna and I enjoyed antiques.  It was our hobby.  When I retired, I repaired and refinished old furniture.” 

When the Butlers moved to Lincoln in 1992, he remodeled their home so he’d have room for a workshop in the garage.

Donna passed away in 2008.  They had been married for 62 years.

Jim Butler’s boys have done well.  Gary and his wife live in Savannah, Missouri.  Dale and his wife Carol live in Kansas City, Missouri; Scott and his wife recently moved to North Carolina.  Criss and his family live in Omaha, while Curt and family – Lincoln residents – frequently see the elder Butler and share meals.

Jim Butler has continued to eagerly follow University of Nebraska sports – everything from football to volleyball.

Until the last few years, Jim Butler would make regular auto trips by himself from Lincoln to Chadron for Chadron Prep and Chadron State reunions.  2010 marked a special return to his hometown, as Butler was inducted into the Chadron State College Athletic Hall of Fame.  All five Butler boys were able to join him for the occasion.
To be sure, Jim Butler has achieved success in many ways.  His accomplishments range from youthful exploits as a talented athlete, to a colorful – if abbreviated – career as a county sheriff.

But likely his proudest achievements have been those relating to the development and nurturing of young people – his own five boys – and the numerous youngsters he has taught and mentored along the way during his career as an educator.

As Jim Butler celebrates 98 years on this earth, he can – and should – take great comfort in the thousands of lives he has touched in so many positive ways.

Happy Birthday, Jim!