More than 1,000 friends and family members celebrated the life of Howard E. Butt Jr. Saturday at a funeral service held at Trinity Baptist Church. Butt, the eldest grandson of H-E-B founder Florence Butt and an influential Christian leader, died Sept. 11 due to complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
Butt was the son of Howard E. Butt Sr. and Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, who expanded the business in the 1920s when they named it Butt Grocery Company. Fusing his business background and Christian ministry, Butt, 89, sought to bridge the secular and religious, the psychological and spiritual, Butt’s close friend Jack Willome reminisced in his eulogy at the service.
At a time when mental illness had especially strong stigmas in the evangelical community, Butt spoke openly about his decade-long battle with depression, realizing that there was “not just a compatibility, but a synchronicity, between a sound biblical understanding and a sound psychological understanding.
“Howard’s openness and honesty and vulnerability helped me to be open and honest much more so in my own life,” Willome, whose friendship with Butt began more than 35 years ago, told the congregation.
With the combined choirs of Trinity Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church and brass, organ, and violin accompaniments, the service alternated between familiar hymns, poignant meditations, and resounding Bach and Handel exultations.
Following a long procession of family members, Butt’s wife of 67 years, Barbara Dan, took the front pew.
“They were incredible romantics,” Willome said, describing Barbara Dan’s commitment to stay by her husband’s side until the very end.
In his sermon, Butt’s friend and fellow minister Earl Palmer underscored Butt’s deeply contemplative faith and the contagious optimism and steadfastness he carried everywhere he went.
“Not only did he fill the room, he enlarged the room,” Palmer told the congregation. “… His faith was able to surround and draw people and help them to make the discovery of grace themselves.”
Born Sept. 8, 1927 in Kerrville, Butt’s involvement with the family business, which today boasts annual sales of more than $23 billion and employs 96,000 people, always went hand-in-hand with his faith. While earning a business degree at Baylor University in the 1940s, Butt also led the Christian youth revival movement that influenced college campuses across the country.
In the 1950s, Butt partnered with evangelist Billy Graham to create Layman’s Leadership Institutes, and, thus began his lifelong commitment to supporting business professionals with spiritual programming.
Butt also was known for producing a series of 60-second radio spots aired on 3,000 stations across the country known as “The High Calling of Our Daily Work,” which highlighted his thoughts on faith and business.
Emphasizing the importance of leveraging spiritual values in one’s work life, Butt often said, “Church work is done wherever we have excellence in our work that exhibits love for the people with whom we are working,” his obituary stated.
“Howard was a man of integrity held together by the grace of God,” Trinity Baptist Church Senior Pastor D. Leslie Hollon told the Rivard Report following the Saturday service. “He was a steward of that integrity by every decision, every action, every relationship that he was a part of. And that integrity revealed a hope and a confidence for people who knew him and worked with him.”
As Butt’s brother Charles took a larger role in H-E-B’s leadership, Butt transitioned his energy toward the company’s philanthropic arm, convening a broad spectrum of religious thinkers at his Laity Lodge Retreat Center, overseeing the Laity Lodge Youth Camp, and serving as president of the H.E. Butt Family Foundation from 1982 until his death.
“His whole thing was that there’s no distinction between sacred and secular, that it’s all sacred,” Willome told the Rivard Report. “Everything’s sacred, including our work, so the role of the church is to equip people out in the world.”
Butt authored five published books on Christian leadership and themes of hope and renewal in the Christian community.
Remembrances may be sent to Friends of The H.E. Butt Family Foundation, P.O. Box 290670, Kerrville, Texas 78029-0670, or the UT Health Science Center San Antonio for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, c/o Carol Swartz – Asst. VP of Institutional Advancement, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, Texas 78229-3900.
Top image: Jack Willome, longtime friend of Howard Butt Jr., gives a tribute to his late friend. Photo by Scott Ball.