June 20, 2004
It is my own sixtieth year and as fitting a time as any to recognize this Fathers Day by remembering my own father, who died four years ago, a couple of months after his 83rd birthday.
My father, Thomas Franklin Butt was born March 26, 1917, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the last of seven children born to Festus Orestes (known as F.O.) Butt and Essie Mae Cox Butt.
Eureka Springs had peaked in the 1880’s as a popular spa and at that time was one of the largest towns in Arkansas. By the first part of the Twentieth Century, the town was still lively but in a slow decline that lasted until it was recognized as “quaint” and experienced a revival the 1970’s. My grandfather was a self-made lawyer and businessman who did not attend law school but instead “read the law” under the tutelage of a local attorney, passed the bar at age 19 and became an attorney. In addition to his law practice, my grandfather served two terms as mayor of Eureka Springs; a term as superintendent of schools for Carroll County; two terms (1897-1900) as representative for Carroll County in the Arkansas Legislature; two terms (1901-1904, 1927-1930) in the State Senate where he was president pro tempore. He was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1917-18 and was elected chancellor and probate judge of the 13th Chancery Circuit by the Bar of the Circuit to serve in 1942-43, during his son John's service in the United States Navy in World War II. One of his more interesting law clients was Carry Nation, the saloon smashing crusader of Women’s Christian Temperance Union fame.
The Butts came from Illinois by way of Kentucky and Virginia, and my great grandfather William Alvin Butt fought in the Civil War for the North in the 126th Illinois Infantry. My great grandfather Cox came from Alabama and fought for the Confederacy. The Civil War was still a topic of hot discussion in my grandparents’ home nearly 100 years after it had otherwise been settled. My grandmother provoked the subject by keeping a lithograph of “Lee’s General Staff’” above the dining room sideboard.
My father grew up in Eureka Springs, where he attended local public schools. During summers while he was in high school, he had a job life guarding at a local resort. He graduated from high school at age 16, and began attending the University of Arkansas some 45 miles away in Fayetteville. At least one of his siblings was also at the University, and for some time, my grandmother moved with them to Fayetteville and “tended house” for a year, bringing along the family cow.
He graduated cum laude from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1938 and was admitted to the bar at age 21. For the next two years, he practiced privately in Fayetteville and served on the faculty of the University of Arkansas Law School. Commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry at graduation, my father was called to active duty in 1940. My mother and father were married in April of 1942 while he was still at the University of Arkansas on the Army ROTC faculty.
In the early years of World War II, my father was stationed in several locations training infantry, the last of which was at the New Mexico School of Mines in Socorro, New Mexico, near Albuquerque, where I was born. My mother had followed my father New Mexico, where they rented an old adobe ranch building, divided into a duplex, on a dusty side street.
In the summer of 1944, my father was ordered to Europe as a legal specialist in part of a newly organized Army unit processing foreign claims. My mother went to live with her parents for the duration. He landed in Normandy, a couple of months after D-Day and followed the breakout first to Rouen and later into Belgium. As he has explained it to me, the U.S. Government was not required to pay for any “battle” damage, but was committed to pay for non-battle damage caused by the U.S. military. If a cow was shot in battle, no compensation was due the farmer, but if it was accidentally run over by a tank, the farmer could successfully process a claim.
Our family was fortunate to accompany my father to Europe several years ago where we visited the areas in which he had served in World War II. We started at the Normandy invasion beaches and went on to Rouen, Paris and the Belgium Ardennes, where we took a canal boat trip on the Meuse River. I heard some stories I had never heard before. My father recalled a quick trip to Paris shortly after its liberation and how he could still smell the wonderful hot baquette given to him by a local baker. He also confessed that coming home on a Liberty ship, he won $3,000 playing craps.
We visited Bastogne and the site of the Malmédy Massacre, where may father teared up with still painful memories. We ended by finding the Chateau in Belgium where he had last been stationed in one of the farm’s outbuilding. It was virtually unchanged but had long since become a summer youth camp.
After leaving active duty as a major, my father and mother made their home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he began a private law practice in 1946. One of his first cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The telephone company sued a woman who allowed university students free use of a telephone at her cafeteria. The telephone company accused her of cutting into its profits, saying a pay phone should be installed at the cafeteria for student use. The woman hired my father, and the high court sided with him. It ended up as his only case before the Supreme Court. "I was able to brag after that that I won every case I ever had in the Supreme Court," he said, in a local newspaper account.
He remained in the Army Reserve after WW II, retiring after 34 years as a brigadier general in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He held the mobilization designation as chief judge of the U.S. Army Judiciary, receiving the Legion of Merit in 1970.
In 1949, my father’s older brother, who had been elected as chancery Judge before going into the Navy, was killed in an automobile accident. My father ran to fill the empty seat and was elected chancery and probate judge in 1949. After taking office on January 1, 1950, he was re-elected each six years thereafter and served continuously for 50 years until his retirement in 2000, serving on the Arkansas bench longer than any judge in Arkansas history.
During my growing up years, my father was kept busy by both his professional work as a judge and his Army Reserve assignments. In those days, his judicial district covered four counties, and he drove to a different county seat each day to hold court. During the summer, I sometimes accompanied him and spent the day watching court and wandering around the courthouse squares of country county seats. He often brought work home to prepare opinions on court cases, and he used a lot of his vacation time to attend various schools and other postings related to his Army Reserve duty. We did get in a vacation every other year or so, making a trip west to the national parks, and a trip east to Washington, D.C., and all of the American heritage sites like Monticello and Mount Vernon. My dad was a dedicated Civil War scholar, and we also visited a number of battlefields. When we were in Washington, D.C., visiting the Capitol, Senator J. William Fulbright asked him if there was any particular senator he would like to meet. My father named Barry Goldwater, and the introduction was arranged.
My father was active in Scouting during the years my brothers and I were that age. He taught us all of the essential survival skills – how to drive, swim, hunt and fish, guide a boat through the whitewater and train a bird dog. The most common family outing was a weekend fishing trip, sometimes combined with a float trip on one of the local Ozarks Rivers – the White, Kings, West Fork or Buffalo. My parents both liked to fish and float the Ozarks rivers, and sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, we would float right though a riverbank baptism conducted by one of the country Baptist churches. Many of those rivers are now at the bottom of huge man-made lakes. The Buffalo is an exception, having been made America’s first national river.
We also spent a lot of weekends at either my grandparents Butt’s home in Eureka Springs or my mother’s parents’ home in eastern Arkansas. All of my father’s brothers were lawyers, except one, who was a doctor. They loved to gather at my grandparents’ home in Eureka Springs and talk politics, law and anything else well into the night. I remember one time they had an extended argument about whether pigeons were good to eat. The opinions ranged from gourmet (squab?) to inedible. Finally, one of the brothers grabbed a .22 and shot a pigeon off the roof. After plucking, roasting and consuming the bird, the range of opinions remained about the same – with no one willing to back down.
When I was in junior high, my father took me duck hunting in eastern Arkansas near a town called Stuttgart, a famous part of the Mississippi flyway. A lawyer friend of my father’s was a member of the club. It was run by “trusties” on leave from the State Penitentiary – a common practice in those days. Among the other guests were a group of rocket scientists from Huntsville, Alabama, including the famous Werner Von Braun. It was a pretty basic place, just an old shack on a levee, and we were all in bunk beds in the same room. I was, of course, thrilled.
My father was pretty much a “straight arrow.” The only time I saw him intentionally break the law was when he shot a squirrel out of season because my grandfather King insisted he had to have it, along with 12 others kinds of meat, for a special Mulligan Stew he had made for some special occasion. He was a life long Democrat at a time when even judges had to declare their political affiliation. However, in those days, there was only one party in Arkansas, and that had been the case since the Civil War. I asked him one time if it bothered him that Arkansas had only one political party. He replied that Arkansas actually had two political parties – the Democrats that are in office and the Democrats that are out of office. Although he was Democrat, he was far more conservative than I, and probably would have been a Republican if the politics of the time would have allowed it.
He had a distinguished career on the bench and the bar, as the first chair of the Arkansas Discipline and Disability Commission, president of the Arkansas Judicial Council, a fourteen year member of the Supreme Court Committee on Rules of Civil Procedure, chair of the Bar Probate Law Committee, Executive Council and House of Delegates of the Arkansas Bar Association and delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1979. His lifetime achievements were recognized by the American Bar Association when it selected him in 1996 as one of three trial judges nationwide to receive its Award of Judicial Excellence. At his retirement on his 83rd birthday, made necessary by advancing cancer, Hon. Dub Arnold, Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court read an order from the Arkansas Supreme Court: “He has touched the life of thousands, and in doing so, has made his portion of the earth a better place to live.” President Clinton wrote: “Your distinguished career and your commitment to the law have set an example for so many, and your work has been a true investment in the future of our state. As your remarkable tenure comes to a close, you can be proud of creating a lasting legacy of public service.
Being a judge is not usually thought of as dangerous work, but as a contemporary newspaper account describes it, at least one of his unhappy court cases tried to kill him. “As far as Washington County Chancellor Tom Butt knew, Shirley Curry was just a person he ruled against in another emotional custody case. On July 20, 1974, the day after the ruling, a detective woke Butt by calling him at 4 a.m. Curry went on a shooting rampage, killing her ex-husband, her ex-sister-in-law and her three children -- 17, 14 and 11. She outlined her murderous plans on a cassette tape police found. ‘We heard the tape," the detective told Butt. ‘She said, 'The next person I'm after is that man in the black robe.' Police arrested Curry before she could follow through with her threat. At 61, she's serving life without parole in an Arkansas prison.”
Until then, we had never locked our doors at night. Although my father had shotguns for bird hunting, he bought a pistol after that and kept it close by.
Another news account in the late 1990’s had this to say: “Lawyers and others who work with Butt say he remains personable, knowledgeable, hard-working and sharp on the bench. While he hasn't lost his sense of humor, he's retained his grit, a no-nonsense attitude and a demand for decorum and proper legal procedure. Lawyers know better than to play games in Butt's court. It's a lesson a man upset over the judge's ruling in a property dispute quickly learned one day some 40 years ago. ‘This fellow came into my office pretty hot around the collar,’ Butt recalled last week. ‘He thought I was crooked and had been bought out by the other side. I lost my cool and said, 'You son of a b****, you get out of this office.' The judge paused in the middle of the story, embarrassed by the memory. He was young and inexperienced. I would not do that now,’ Butt said, pausing again, gazing upward in thought. ‘Well, I'm not sure I wouldn't do it, either, because that cuts pretty close to the bone when somebody accuses you of selling out to the other side.’”
Despite Clinton’s kind remarks at the time of my father’s retirement, my father was not consistently a Clinton admirer. When the Clintons first moved to Fayetteville, Hillary recounts in her book “Living History,” her introduction to my dad:
“Bill Bassett, President of the local bar association, took me around to meet the local lawyers and judges. He introduced me to Tom Butt, the chancery court judge, saying, ‘judge, this is the new lady law professor. She’s going to teach criminal law and run the legal aid programs.’”
“Well,” said Judge Butt, peering down at me, “we’re glad to have you, but you should know I have no use for legal aid, and I’m a pretty tough S.O.B.”
Since my father was gone by the time Hillary’s book came out, I never got a chance to verify the exchange with him, but I could speculate that, as a child of the Depression, he recalled a time when lawyers sometimes worked for a chicken or a sack of potatoes but always got paid something. I remember my grandfather’s office was full of worthless but sometimes fascinating bric-a-brac he claimed had been given to him for legal work by otherwise broke clients.
I do, however, have the impression that my father was less hard on Hillary than Bill, even though, as she also describes in her book, she later got the Arkansas law changed to make it easier for student lawyers to represent indigent clients.
My mother died in 1991, and on August 31, 1997, at age 80, my father married an old family friend and widow from Mississippi, Frances Trotter, who had previously lived in Fayetteville in the 1950’s and taught one of my brothers in school. They enjoyed a three-year courtship before their marriage and three good years after until his death in 2000.
Sometimes it takes decades to truly know what one inherits from a father, but I know now that he at least left me a work ethic, an appreciation of public service, respect for the written and spoken word, a fondness for history, appreciation of the outdoors, a desire for honesty, strong family values and stubbornness.