Obituary: James Owsley Butcher (1932-2023)
When Jim Butcher passed away in the early hours of May 5, he left a gaping hole in the lives of his wife, Barbara; his two sons, Matthew and Christopher; and his two granddaughters, Alex Mlynarski and Hannah Berk. Gaping because above all else, he was all in for his family and for the last six decades of his 90-year existence had devoted most of his time and energy toward helping them have a full, happy life. But he also was a boon for the Beltsville community. This, after more than 30 years of working for the US Department of Agriculture and then as a Consultant-International for the University of Maryland.
“I remember sitting on Pa’s lap playing Minesweeper,” says Hannah about her first memory of her Grandpa. She was his “Hannah-boo” or just “Boo;” he often sang “Ain’t nothin but a hound dog,” and “When the moon hits your eye” to her—even though he was not at all musical. To Alex, Pa was just always there, curious about her day and her dreams, “bright and optimistic but in a practical way,” she recalls. She credits him with helping her approach life logically, particularly when it comes to financial decisions. What she will miss most is how he would often reach out, grab her hand, give it a squeeze, and say, “Good girl, good girl.”
How much did he love them? Jim still has a stuffed one-eye cow that Hanna made when she was learning to sew with Grandma, as well as a rock painted green with “Pa” in a little kid’s scrawl. Alex loved that Pa got her a piano and even though she and Hannah both hated their piano lessons, they persevered because Pa would take them to the lessons and on the way home stop at Costco for soft-serve ice cream. And because Pa played bluegrass on the radio then, Hannah says she developed a lifelong love of old country music. “He was definitely family first,” says Chris’s wife, Ginger. While working in Rome in 1974 he telegrammed (and kept) a “happy birthday” message to his young son Chris.
Jim considered himself an introvert, but he loved one-on-one conversations and finding out about the origins and stories of everyone he encountered from the busboys at his favorite Mexican restaurant to the Georgetown University hospital surgeons. And he loved to tell stories. “His stories and slow-paced energy played a large role in why I ended up in a small town,” says Hannah, who now lives in Starkville, Mississippi with her husband Mathew. “It was hard moving, but it makes me feel closer to him when I’m there.”
He also described himself as “a stoic, gadfly, and curmudgeon” as he liked to take a firm, if not contrarian, view. He liked to joke that he was chairman and sole member of the Yellow Dandelion Party. That could be tough on his family. Matt had to ponder Jim’s query, “Is this a good engineering decision?” all the way to Florida on a last-minute college spring break trip. Even to go down the block to see friends for a few minutes, Chris would be first grilled extensively about the state of his homework—he was not a very motivated student. And during frequent sessions with dad and his flash cards, “I felt like my fingernails were being pulled out,” Chris recalls. Years later, granddaughter Alex felt the same way when Jim was helping her with math. But whenever she was prepping for a science fair, she’d do a trial run of her presentation for Jim “half dreading and half looking forward to it,” as she knew he would quiz her until she had it down. “If you could survive the questioning with Pa, you could probably survive any judge.”
Having grown up poor in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Jim was frugal to a fault, hating to spend money so much that he had to have Barbara write out the checks needed to pay bills. When the family took a three-week cross country RV trip, he refused to set up a budget, fearing that his family “would just spend it all,”. So, Barb assigned him the task of keeping a daily journal and that kept him occupied. And now we all appreciate having those written memories.
On her refrigerator door, Barb had a cartoon that said, “I married you for life but not for lunch.” And when Jim retired, she threatened to make him take guitar lessons. Jim took that cartoon to heart. But in 1984, his techy son had gotten Jim hooked on computers and he began to write. He penned his memoir and became a business reporter and occasional restaurant critic for the Beltsville News. He covered all sorts of enterprises, from the local radiator repair shop to the now absorbed Digex, one of the world’s first internet providers. He extolled the delights of his favorite Mexican restaurant, the Sierra Grill; welcomed Aldi’s as the new, CHEAP, grocery in town, and interviewed the Behnke’s about that iconic nursery.
Born August 13, 1932, in Springfield, Missouri, Jim never felt far from his roots in rural Hickory County. His career at the USDA began immediately after he graduated from the University of Missouri, having attended thanks to the GI Bill after an Army stint in Korea as a chief preventive medicine technician. Whether helping to breed dairy cattle in the Virgin Islands or awarding agriculture research grants around the world, he strongly believed, as did Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, that improvements in agriculture would truly help people. The job brought him to Beltsville in the early 1960s and after square dancing one afternoon, he noticed houses going up off Yucca Street and bought one for $27,500. Soon he was transferred from the Beltsville campus to the USDA’s downtown headquarters but rather than leave Beltsville, he commuted by bus, carpool and even on the new Red Line when not overseas. His stint at another USDA building led to calling himself the “K Street Cowboy.”
After leaving the USDA, he kept up USDA ties as director of the Friends of Agricultural Research–Beltsville, volunteering at the group’s science trailer when it visited the elementary school in his backyard and drafting congressional testimony. He was constantly honing his writing skills. His bookshelves were full of dictionaries, style guides and grammar books, and Ginger, when she started writing for the Beltsville News and later for her job at NASA, sought out his editing advice. “He would often say, ‘I don’t want to have cow blood all over the paper,’” and Ginger would reply “Bleed on it,” as each red mark helped her improve, she says.
Already an avid gardener and active in the Beltsville Garden club, he cultivated his passion for roses by establishing and maintaining a thriving rose garden at the Emanuel United Methodist Church and tending finicky teacup roses with granddaughter Alex. Together they also grew green beans and tomatoes, each summer waging war against ground hogs and squirrels. “He was a big part of the start of my knowledge about gardening,” Alex recalls, and years later, even as she became an expert herself, she relied on him as a sounding board. He even kept a larger garden on the Kilbourne’s acreage.
He loved baseball and went to the last Senator’s game and 34 years later, the first Nationals home game. He also loved bread—which needed to be served at every meal—potatoes, ham and beans, fried chicken, and sirloin steak, a cut he regaled his dinner companions with the story of how a king liked the loin so much he knighted it.
He was in perfect health until 1985 and prided himself on daily exercise, often on the trail by the Beltsville Community Center. He even wore out an exercise bike that he used in the winter. Then what he thought was just prostate changes brought on by old age proved to be bladder cancer. An operation, radiation and chemotherapy took care of the tumor but not the kidney failure brought on by backed up urine from a blocked bladder. Still he preserved for another five years, most of them with two nephrostomy tubes in his back to drain his kidneys and a hole in his gut for nightly peritoneal dialysis. Yet even when his health was failing, he still wanted bread at every meal.
“He was big on having a big celebration” says Alex and would always call a time-out during one to say how grateful he was to have all the family together, even when because of his hearing loss, it would be hard to follow conversations in a crowd. He relished Alex’s cooking and baking – she is accomplished in both, taking cues from her dad’s love of food—and while he particularly loved her coconut cake and biscuits and gravy, he professed to love a meat dish she’d made—until he found out it was lamb.
In the days following his passing, people kept saying how he was a good man, a kind man, a smart man. That was Ginger’s impression about the whole family. “It was like meeting the Cleaver family,” she recalls about her first encounter with the Butchers. “They were all so nice and welcoming.”
Jim Butcher is sorely missed.