Like virtually all of Southern Illinois, I was saddened Monday to read about the passing of longtime Marion Mayor Robert Butler, who served his community for more than 55 years. His long tenure gave him the distinction of being the longest serving mayor in the nation, before he stepped down last year.
Through the years, Mayor Butler and I built a good relationship, however we started out on difficult terms to say the least. In fact, there was a period of time when I am certain he didn't like me at all and the feeling was quite mutual on my side.
Let me explain.
For several years, I wrote a twice-weekly column in The Southern. As a columnist, I didn't shy away from controversial or delicate topics. Being a conservative writer based in Carbondale — a leftist stronghold — put me in the crosshairs of the politically correct, liberal crowd more than a few times. At the same time, I also hosted a Wednesday night radio show on WQRL called "Sound Off" — a news call-in show where I also tackled a lot of political issues.
About 20 years ago, there was some discussion about building a new federal courthouse to serve the Southern District — which makes up about the bottom third of the state. The courthouse is currently housed in Benton. Being the astute political leader that he was, Butler made an impassioned plea to have the courthouse moved to Marion — the "Hub of the Universe," as he liked to describe the county seat of Williamson County. I felt like Butler used some rather disparaging remarks in referring to Franklin County and I took him to task in a column, which drew a reply from him in a guest editorial.
Clearly, the line in the sand had been drawn.
Not being bashful or one to run from a verbal altercation, I invited Butler to be a guest on Sound Off, knowing also that he was neither bashful or afraid of a verbal sparring match. As I expected, he promptly agreed to be on the show.
We traded jabs for 12 or 15 minutes before I had all I wanted of his comments about Benton and Franklin County and I "flushed him" — abruptly telling him that his time was up as my engineer used the sound effect of a toilet flushing.
A few months later, Mayor Butler and I ended up being guest waiters at a fundraising event. Somebody in the crowd that night, knowing that we didn’t see eye-to-eye, said they would donate $100 if Butler and I would have our picture made together. Of course, we both good-naturedly agreed. We both even managed a smile!
A couple weeks later, I received a piece of mail on City of Marion stationary. I sort of held my breath as I opened the letter. Inside, was a copy of the picture with a handwritten note at the bottom that said: “From one SOB to another … good to cross paths with you at the fundraiser.” I laughed out loud when I read the note.
One of the better Butler stories I recalled after hearing he had passed involved my daughter, Lyndsay, who many years ago worked as a waitress at Bob Evans Restaurant in Marion. One day, Butler, his wife and another lady were eating breakfast at the restaurant and Lyndsay was their waitress. At some point there was some conversation and Lyndsay told the Mayor: “I think you might know my dad.” To which Mayor Butler replied, “Well honey … who is your dad?" When Lyndsay said "Jim Muir," the mayor never missed a beat and said, “Yeah, I know the horses’ ass.”
The funniest part of the story was the reaction from Butler’s wife and the other woman. Lyndsay said both women drew a collective gasp at the mayor’s comment. Lyndsay assured them she was not offended. “I’ve heard him called worse than that,” she told them.
As a parting shot, Mayor Butler added with a laugh: “I’m sure you have, honey … I’m sure you have.”
All these years later, I still laugh out loud when I tell that story.
Interestingly, a few years later, I became involved with “Marion Living Magazine” and I had several cordial and pleasant conversations with Butler. I can say with certainty that he didn’t hold a grudge about our (somewhat) friendly feud from years earlier.
From small villages to the largest cities in the nation, mayors come and go, but none will have the impact that Mayor Butler had on the city he loved. He was an innovator, a motivator, a visionary and an unabashed cheerleader for Marion. He was a doer and not a talker, and he set the bar so high for success that nobody will ever reach it, period.
RIP Mayor Butler and thank you for all you did for Marion, for Southern Illinois and thanks for the great memories.