By David Colbus, Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences
Student Assistant, University Archives
Two weeks ago, I took the opportunity to learn more about UM’s history by interviewing someone
instrumental within it—Dr. William R. Butler. I knew I had found the former Vice President’s house when University Archivist, Koichi Tasa, and I saw the UM flag waving in front of his home. As we pulled into his driveway, Dr. Butler greeted us and invited us into his garage-turned-office. He immediately gifted us with several copies of his two books, and he even gave me my own signed copy of his 2008 book, “Embracing the World.” The Archives reciprocated Dr. Butler’s book gifts with a framed print of the “Keep Them Coming” poster which hangs in the library’s collection.
After this exchange, Dr. Butler invited us to sit with him. He began introducing the friends and
prominent people from the University of Miami and elsewhere that stood out in his gallery, including Presidents Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. When eyeing a picture of President Henry King Stanford, Dr. Butler told us the story of how the Butler family happened to come to the University of Miami. President Stanford telephoned him in 1965 while in his office at Ohio University when he was Dean of Students. He told Dr. Butler how impressed he was with the work he was doing with Ohio U students. He went on to say that a new position of Vice President for Student Affairs had just been established at UM and that he was interested in Dr. Butler filling that position. Dr. Butler was hesitant. He said, “My wife, Ginnie, and I are here at our alma mater. We love it here in Ohio and so do our four children. We have no plans to leave.” But President Stanford would not take no for an answer, so he flew Dr. and Mrs. Butler from Ohio to Coral Gables for a lengthy visit. Dr. Butler and his wife, Ginnie, fell in love with UM, and he accepted the position, serving as Vice President for Student Affairs for the next 32 years. “I loved every minute of my job,” Dr. Butler said. “My move from Ohio was something I have never regretted.” After finishing the tour of the gallery, Dr. Butler gave us a tour of his home, showing us the living room where he would invite UM students as guests to engage with the key guest speakers from the University.
When asked about his two books and his nearly 20 years of retired life, Dr. Butler joked, “I’m through writing books. The only book I have left in my thoughts is one which cannot be told.” Dr. Butler said he had been “enjoying his retirement years by writing books and getting more involved with the UM Alumni Association and the Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development. I am also very involved in daily physical activity, and enhancing my network of friends from around the USA and the world.” He went on to say, “I have lived long enough to be able to do good things and help the less fortunate in life. And, I appreciate the positive effects and respect I’ve enjoyed for my efforts.” During his time as Vice President, Dr. Butler said that his philosophy of working with UM students was very simple—”students tell us if we listen.” He continued saying that he and his staff in student affairs believed that each and every student should grow to realize their full potential while studying and living at UM. Moreover, he has enjoyed taking a large private bureaucratic institution like UM and personalizing it for students. Dr. Butler is very proud of UM. During the past 50 years, the University has embraced his overall student-centered philosophy, something which only a few American research universities have accomplished.
When I asked Dr. Butler about President Tad Foote’s previous remarks on making the University “smaller and better,” he told me that UM has moved from essentially being the “state university of South Florida” to a very select private institution…one with smaller and better student enrollments and one with higher entry SAT scores. He elaborated, “Each of the past administrations has been able to build on the many accomplishments of the previous ones in building a research university of excellence.”
Dr. Butler took me through the history of the Student Volunteer Center which, in 1997, became the Butler Center. On his arrival in 1965, the Wesley Foundation on campus had a volunteer program named, Students of the University of Miami Move on Need (SUMMON). This program lasted only a few years because it was eventually taken over by Undergraduate Student Government and was discontinued during the early 1970s. Consequently, the SUMMON program ceased functioning. It was not until 1989 that Dr. Butler established the present volunteer services and leadership development center on campus. He is so proud of the accomplishments of the Butler Center, and he believes that each and every student should do something in life to help the less fortunate, without pay, with just the benefit of donating their services and leadership skills.
I then asked Dr. Butler about something I had read in his book, a phrase expressed by former President Henry King Stanford. Dr. Stanford had talked about his belief that UM had a “rendezvous with greatness.” He believed that this idea was a coming together, at an appointed time, when UM would achieve greatness in higher education. Dr. Butler added to this insightful idea when he stated that UM would enjoy an international rendezvous with greatness. He told me he believes that, not only will this international rendezvous occur, but in many respects it has already begun in recent years.
As Koichi Tasa and I were leaving, Dr. Butler gave me a list of what he personally has learned during his 90 years. What particularly struck me was the first item on his list—-“I believe in the three F’s….Family, Friends and Faith.” And, indeed, some of Dr. Butler’s friends had interrupted our interview a few times with telephone calls. Moreover, he encouraged me as well to call him from time to time. Quite happy, I returned to the UM Archives not with just UM’s historical facts, but also with copies of Dr. Butler’s books, his philosophical insights, and friendship.
*Please click here to read Dr. Butler’s essay “What I have Learned in Nearly 90 Years.” This document will be added to our archival collection of Dr. B’s personal papers “William R. Butler Papers.”