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Christian Leader Howard E. Butt Jr. Of H-E-B Dies At 89

Mr. Howard E. Butt Jr.
Mr. Howard E. Butt Jr.

Last updated on September 13th, 2016 at 03:32 pm

Christian businessman Mr. Howard E. Butt Jr., who pioneered the concept that the business world was a high calling for people of faith, died Sunday evening at home from complications related to Parkinson’s. The former president of The H. E. Butt Foundation and H-E-B board vice chair was 89.

As a bridge builder between the secular and religious worlds, Mr. Butt is perhaps best remembered for nationally convening groups from all walks of life for intellectual discussion and inspired reflection, often hosting them at his Laity Lodge Retreat Center in the Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio, as well as his nationally-broadcast radio program, “The High Calling of our Daily Work.”

Mr. Butt pioneered terms and concepts—such as work/life balance and small groups—that became hallmarks of mainstream Christianity, and was an early adapter of the servant leadership movement. At a time when most leaders feared showing any weakness, he also courageously modeled transparency about his bouts with depression, recognizing the benefit to others in acknowledging that everyone has struggles.

Of the thousands of business professionals influenced by Mr. Butt, many recall his hospitality as a hallmark of their time at Laity Lodge and the Leadership Forums, including his ability to make anyone feel welcome and safe, no matter their station in life or their religious beliefs. He challenged them to use their gifts—which he believed came from God—to the utmost, saying that work had holy value, but that it also had to be balanced with personal growth and family commitments.

“Christianity that does not change us in our homes will never change the world,” Mr. Butt was fond of saying, adding that “church work is done wherever we have excellence in our work that exhibits love for the people we are working with.”

In his early years as a businessman and lay preacher, Mr. Butt served as an associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and was invited to address one of the first National Prayer Breakfasts, hosted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Graham credited Mr. Butt with pioneering workplace ministry and told him, “Only when we get to heaven will we see how many lives you have touched through your ministry of evangelism and your tremendous work through Laity Lodge.”

As he juggled his roles with the business, family and foundation, Mr. Butt developed a growing concern for the overlooked role of the church laity—those not serving as ordained ministers, but active members of their faith communities—as well as the dignity of work itself. Feeling called to step away from day-to-day leadership of the food business as a VP in the late ’60s, he transitioned to a board role as vice chair, and with the support of his family, dedicated his life full-time to ministry.

“Howard had a vision of impacting the world but doing it through personal renewal within the family and the local church,” said longtime friend and businessman Jack Willome. “He was unique in his recognition of the compatibility between sound biblical teaching and sound psychological understanding.”

Born Sept. 8, 1927, in Kerrville, Texas, Mr. Butt grew up in the food business founded in 1905 by his grandmother, Florence. He attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, graduating in 1947 with a degree in business, and soon afterward married his longtime sweetheart, Barbara Dan Gerber. While a student at Baylor, Mr. Butt is credited with leading a Christian youth revival movement that spread to college campuses across the country and influenced tens of thousands of young people.

Mr. Butt’s parents, Howard E. Butt Sr. and Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, greatly expanded the family business through the years. Today, H-E-B is one of the largest food retailers in the U.S., with annual sales of more than $23 billion. With more than 380 stores and 96,000 employees, H-E-B is one of the largest privately held companies in the nation, serving families in more than 300 communities throughout Texas and northern Mexico.

While working in his family’s business, Mr. Butt continued to pursue spiritual endeavors, creating with Graham the Layman’s Leadership Institute, which hosted national faith-based programs for business professionals. In recognition of his efforts on behalf of workers, Mr. Butt was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the first Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

In 1933, the senior Butts had established The H. E. Butt Foundation, one of the earliest private foundations in Texas. It served as a vehicle for philanthropic contributions to South Texas communities, and in 1954 acquired 1,900 acres in the rural Texas Hill Country to provide free outdoor camping facilities for underprivileged children. After Mr. Butt took on leadership of the foundation, he was able to greatly expand upon his parents’ vision, serving more than 20,000 campers each year—nearly one million to date—including from churches and other nonprofit groups. He also established the Laity Lodge Retreat Center, which brought together internationally renowned speakers, such as celebrated author Madeleine L’Engle and professors and theologians Henri Nouwen, J.I. Packer and N.T. Wright. It was here that the “small group” model was birthed, transforming churches across the nation as they embraced the concept later described by Keith Miller in his best-selling book, “The Taste of New Wine,” written largely at Laity Lodge.

With his acceptance of the presidency of The H. E. Butt Foundation in 1982, Mr. Butt expanded its charitable endeavors and role in integrating business and faith. He was inspired by his mother’s vision for the foundation to “house the great theological thinkers of our day—which may in time broaden and deepen the spiritual life of many a church,” and to “promote the highest aspirations known to men—ideas in education as well as in religion and in public health, both physical and mental.”

Mr. Butt wrote numerous books on faith and leadership, beginning with “The Velvet-Covered Brick: Christian Leadership in an Age of Rebellion,” which introduced the concept of “the Servant King” (now known as servant leadership) to business leaders. Teaching the biblical concepts of submission and authority, he inspired future generations to have a more eternal perspective in their careers and personal lives.

Other books authored by Mr. Butt include “At the Edge of Hope: Christian Laity in Paradox”; “Renewing America’s Soul”; “Renewing the Spirit, Healing the Soul”; and “Who Can You Trust? Overcoming Betrayal and Fear.” He also contributed regularly to “Laity Connections,” the internal publication of The H. E. Butt Family Foundation.

While increasing the number of people reached through the foundation’s free camping program, Mr. Butt also introduced Laity Lodge Youth Camp, a summer camp for youth in the second through 10th grade, and the Laity Lodge Family Camp, which enables families to enjoy the camping experience together in comfortable, modern facilities.

Included among the many unique programs Mr. Butt introduced was the Laity Lodge Leadership Forums, which brought together senior business leaders and their spouses from Fortune 500 companies every two years to listen to internationally renowned speakers from the fields of faith, social science, psychology, medicine, entertainment, politics and business. Participants also took part in small group sessions with each other and the presenters, discussing subjects vital to their family and business lives. Speakers included Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; former Secretary of State James Baker and his wife Susan; Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Timothy Johnson, author, chief medical correspondent for ABC News and a teaching staff member of the Harvard Medical School; Dr. Armond Nicoli, psychiatrist, author of the book and PBS special, “The Question of God,” and Harvard Medical School clinical professor of psychiatry; James Brown, sportscaster and host of CBS’ “NFL Today;” Jonathan Aitken, former British defense minister; Bonnie Wurzbacher, former SVP of Coca-Cola; and many others.

In 2000, Mr. Butt began the radio broadcast, “The High Calling of Our Daily Work,” which emphasized the inherent value of good, honest work. The 60-second spots reached millions of listeners on 3,000 radio stations in all 50 states. The program’s website, thehighcalling.org, featured some of the nation’s top writers, thinkers and business icons.

Mr. Butt is survived by his wife, Barbara Dan; two siblings, Eleanor Butt Crook and Charles Butt; three children, Howard III (Pamela), Stephen (Susan) and Deborah Dan Rogers (David); and eight grandchildren, Howard IV (Kristen), Hillary (Tom) and Jeffery (Alexandra) Butt; Sarah and Shelby Butt; and Katherine (Rob), Alexandra (Patrick) and Jackson Rogers; and one great-granddaughter, Charley Butt.

Remembrances may be sent to the Friends of The H.E. Butt Family Foundation, P.O. Box 290670, Kerrville, TX 78029-0670. A memorial service celebrating the life and witness of Mr. Butt will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at Trinity Baptist Church, 319 E. Mulberry Avenue, San Antonio, Texas.

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