UH celebrates life of
By Ken Fountain
Daily Cougar Staff
Hundreds of family, friends and colleagues
of John Butler, the UH geosciences professor who died of cancer Oct. 24,
filled the Lyndall Finley
Wortham Theater on Tuesday afternoon for
a celebration of his life and 33-year career at the University.
Lorrie Novosad/The Daily
Attendees of the memorial
service for geosciences professor John Butler enter the Lyndall Finley
Wortham Theatre on Tuesday afternoon.
During the one-and-a-half hour ceremony,
several speakers spoke of "Big John" with unbridled affection for the man
known for his humor,
enthusiasm and brilliance.
As people entered the newly-refurbished
theater, they were treated to a PowerPoint display of photographs of Butler
throughout his life,
interspersed with some of his favorite
jokes and sayings. ("Only for the lead dog does the view change" was one.)
The celebratory nature of the event was
reflected in the music heard in the auditorium, mostly popular songs from
the 1960s and '70s selected by
his family from his CD collection.
Jill Butler, one of Butler's daughters
from his first marriage, served as the "master of ceremonies." She noted
that Butler's second wife, Susan Butler,
serves as associate director for public
affairs for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, and that she
herself worked for a period in her
"Our family has strong UH ties. This was
a very special place for my dad," she said, adding that she only learned
how much a community UH is in
the last two weeks, as Butler's condition
"It didn't seem right to do this in a church,"
she said. "This was my dad's church. This is where he felt the most strong
bonds. Whatever was most
important in life, this was the place."
Noting that her father was not a traditionally
religious man, she told how he would go to church with the family at her
"My dad put on long pants," she said to
the laughter of the gathering, acquainted with Butler's usual practice
of wearing shorts. During the services,
she said, he would entertain himself by
flipping through the Bible and finding "strange, odd passages" that he
would share with his children.
"I think what that did for me was, it gave
me a true sense of one of the most important lessons my dad taught me --
respectful irreverence," she said,
adding that he taught his children to
question people and assumptions.
"There were two things that were always
true about my father. He was always a geologist, and he was always a teacher,"
She said he was "always happiest" when
he was doing something related to teaching. When he went to his children's
soccer games, he would lie
in the grass at the end of the field,
grading papers. "He always knew when to look up and give the 'way-to-go'
While it might have seemed he was a workaholic,
she said, that wasn't the case. "He didn't have a job. He had a lifestyle.
That was how he most
wanted to live his life."
UH Vice President for Student Affairs Elwyn
Lee spoke next, describing Butler's commitment to serving the University.
During a period in the
mid-'90s when enrollment at UH was declining,
Butler personally studied the figures and submitted recommendations for
reversing them. Finally,
Lee said, the administration created a
position for him, to "pay him for what he was already doing."
Lee also talked about Butler's early interest
in using the Internet for educational purposes. "John was a techie before
being a techie was cool," he
John Hardy, associate dean of the College
of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, related Butler's penchant for playing
practical jokes. In one
instance, he created several "Van Horn
dollars," dollar bills with the picture of George Washington removed and
replaced by a picture of then
UH-President Richard Van Horn, which Butler
called "UH chits."
Another time, Hardy said, Butler surreptitiously
placed a placard of the "Marijuana Growers Association of America" on a
credenza in the
Rachel Sissenwein, a current geosciences
senior, told the audience about "how loved he was by all of us students.
He had a gift for putting us at
David Meaux, an NSM alumnus who first knew
Butler in the early 1980s, described how when he first came to the geosciences
would see a big man with a beard and short
pants walking through the halls, and wonder, "Who is that guy?" only to
learn he was the departmental
"He was at the center of the culture of
the department," Meaux said. "He was a fantastic teacher, with an enthusiasm
that was infectious. I have a
never-ending respect for this man."