City mourns loss of dedicated civic leader in Butler
For as much as Harry Butler loved his hometown, he also truly loved his family, his wife said Monday.
“He loved his family just as much as he loved his community. He was such a nice husband,” Danielle Butler said, surrounded by her daughter and granddaughter at their home. “This is his home. He loved Grand Junction. If he saw you, he’d come up to you and say how happy he was to see you.”
A tireless community volunteer and leader and an ordained minister at Handy Chapel, Harry Butler, 69, died unexpectedly Sunday night.
Butler most recently simultaneously served on the Grand Junction City Council and School District 51 Board of Education, but that was just the tip of his long-standing involvement in Grand Junction’s civic life.
Danielle said her husband had a pacemaker and had trouble walking, but you’d never know it because “he never complained,” she said.
Services for Butler are slated for 11 a.m. Monday at Canyon View Vineyard Church, with a reception to follow.
Butler’s daughter, Janielle Westermire, said she never had a name growing up — she was always “Harry Butler’s daughter.”
Once when her dad knocked on the door of her college dorm at what is now Colorado Mesa University, Janielle’s roommates thought he was a football player.
“He had a big head about that for years,” she said, laughing.
Janielle, who works at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, was always struck by the fact that the most stubborn inmates would attend her father’s services when he provided ministry in the jail.
“He didn’t talk it, he walked it,” Janielle said, about her father’s approach to his Christian faith. “He didn’t care who you were, what you looked like — he treated you with respect.”
Butler ran for City Council and School Board seats without raising a dime, explaining that if “God wants me to win, I will,” Grand Junction Mayor Sam Susuras said.
Butler was rounding out his second School Board term, an eight-year stint that was up in November, and had served on the council from 2001 to 2005 before being elected again in April.
“He will be greatly missed by this community and all who have had the privilege of working with him,” Susuras said.
Butler, who wasn’t a fan of email, was a voracious reader and prepared extensively for meetings by reading the hundreds of pages of documents, Danielle said.
Even after reading several newspapers each day, he’d tune into the nightly television news to stay current on events, she said.
Just six months after leaving the council, he was elected in November 2005 to the School Board. He planned to finish his second term on the board this November, even though he was sworn in as a city councilman for the second time last month.
Cindy Enos-Martinez, one of the few other Grand Junction residents ever to serve on the City Council as well as the School Board, had terms on both panels that overlapped with Butler’s. Enos-Martinez said Butler was “a good, honest man that had a lot of faith.” He consistently provided a positive influence on even the council’s or board’s toughest days.
“I saw him upset one time, but not to the extent where he exploded or acted differently. He just took care of it,” Enos-Martinez said.
District 51 School Board Vice President Leslie Kiesler said when the board had to make unpopular decisions, he always comforted her by saying, “Don’t let them steal your joy.”
“I feel like I’ve lost a wing man, a best friend, a colleague, and this community has lost more than they could ever know,” Kiesler said.
The two bonded during the last eight years over a friendly rivalry between her alma mater, Central High, and Butler’s alma mater, Grand Junction High School. District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said Butler always showed pride for the Tigers but was humble when it came to his own accomplishments.
“It was never about him or trying to steal the limelight; it was about what was best for the community,” Schultz said. “It’s the rare person that can represent the interests of everyone and Harry did that.”
District 51 School Board President Greg Mikolai said Butler was often a quiet presence on the board. But that was because he was listening.
“He would never push you on something. He would listen and decide afterwards,” Mikolai said. “Once he made a decision, a lot of people felt assured that must be the right way to go.”
Butler stuck by his principles and his decisions, Schultz said.
“He used to tell us, ‘I used to be an umpire in baseball and you’ve gotta call ‘em the way you see ‘em,’ ” Schultz said.
Jeff Leany, who has been seated next to Butler at School Board meetings since Leany was elected to the board in 2011, said Butler was the perfect seatmate.
“He was always good-humored, a great person to having sitting on my left-hand side, always a positive guy,” Leany said.
Ann Tisue, also elected to the board in 2011, said it’s nearly impossible for a board member to attend all school district-related functions. But Butler came close.
“He had a personal interest in everyone,” she said, particularly athletes and minority students.
Dan Robinson served on the school board during Butler’s first term. The two also worked on legal issues to help keep Handy Chapel open. Robinson said Butler survived what was at times a rough period for African Americans in Grand Junction and wanted to protect minorities and impoverished students of all colors in local schools.
“He believed, like me, that given a chance, kids will turn those childhood stressors into motivation,” Robinson said. “He was a model of integrity and he stood for dignity.”
He took his duties to the community seriously, but not himself, according to Mikolai, who lauded Butler’s “self-deprecating sense of humor.” It was no secret among board members that Butler wasn’t a fan of technology and his colleagues joked with him about his lack of interest in email.
What he did have an interest in, according to Kiesler, was family, God and service to community.
Butler volunteered on a number of boards, including the Coloramo Credit Union Board, the Minority Overrepresentation in the Penal System committee, the Downtown Development Authority and the Grand Junction Housing Authority.
He retired in 1994 after 29 years with the Bureau of Reclamation. Butler always maintained that he wanted to continue in his family’s tradition of contributing to Grand Junction’s community life.
Butler’s great uncles were among the community’s founding members when they came to Grand Junction from Cameron, Mo., in 1888 to clear land for growing fruit on what is now the site of Orchard Avenue Elementary School, according to a history column compiled by the late Kathy Jordan.
Butler’s family attended Handy Chapel after it was built in 1892. During the ensuing decades, the church on the northeast corner of Second Street and White Avenue often served as a refuge for blacks.
Born July 2, 1943, Butler attended Whitman and Emerson grade schools and went to Kansas to live with his mother for a short time. He moved back to Grand Junction to live with his grandmother and graduated from Grand Junction High School in 1962. He shined shoes and cleaned the Home Loan and Investment Company building with his grandfather, while his grandmother, Ione, secretly set aside some of his earnings every week. In 1964, she presented him with a 1954 Chevrolet purchased with his money, according to Jordan’s column.
Danielle said she met Harry when she was 15 and he was 16, because their grandmothers were friends.
She liked him immediately and the two married five years later, in 1963.
Danielle attended what was then Western State College in Gunnison for about two weeks when Harry came to visit. She left school to be with him, because she knew she wanted to marry him.
“I don’t know why, I just had this really strong feeling that I would have a good life with this man,” she said. “I followed my heart and I never regretted it.”