Unforgettable Tom Butterfield

Unforgettable Tom Butterfield

By Bill Westbrook

Originally published in the November 1983 issue of Reader’s Digest

One morning in July 1963 my wife told me, “Weegee Lovell says Tom Butterfield needs help. Why don’t you run out there with your hammer and see what you can do?”

Tom was single and 23, a recent college graduate who had started a private, nonprofit ranch for homeless boys. Weegee Lovell, our neighbor, was on his board of advisers. I had a weakness for woodcraft and, as a teacher, I loved watching kids grow and helping them when I could.

But as I drove through the town of Marshall, Mo., I was convinced that Tom was in over his head. Why, he was hardly more than a boy grown tall himself. And his “ranch”, an abandoned country club on the outskirts of town, was worse than I expected. Doors were off hinges, windows broken, the roof gaped. The ranched needed not a hammer but a wrecking ball.

A rawboned young man, over six feet tall with crew-cut red hair, came around the corner. “Hi,” he said, giving me a freckled grin and a firm handshake. “I’m Tom Butterfield.” He introduced the two boys with him, both no more than ten, as Andy and Dan.*

“Bill Westbrook,” I announced. “And this isn’t going to work.”

“Well, sit down,” replied Tom, still grinning. “Let’s talk about it.”

Twenty minutes later when I left the ranch to get a truckload of shingles, I had joined Weegee Lovell as one of Tom’s strongest supporters.

Tom had been working his way through Missouri Valley College in Marshall as an aide at the state mental hospital when he first met six-year-old Andy, the first of “his boys.” Here was this scared, bewildered little boy with a speech defect. He’d ended up in the mental hospital because his parents had been killed in a car wreck, and the state had nowhere else to put him. That floored me.”

Outwardly fun-loving and easy-going, Tom had carried an aching emptiness inside since the death of his mother, from cancer, when he was 12. Now here was someone who shared the same need, someone who he could help, and by helping, somehow—together—fill that need for both of them. But Tom didn’t tell it like that. “I looked at Andy,” he said as we sat on the gutted porch, “and I saw myself.”

Tom asked to take Andy home. The hospital administrator stared at him for a long, flinty moment, and then his face softened. “Tom,” he said, “what makes you think you can take care of a child?”

“Sir,” Tom replied softly, “in a place like this, what makes you think you can?” Andy was informally released to Tom’s custody.

But a hospital staff member was soon on the phone. A state inspector had ordered Andy returned. Tom refused; kidnap charges were threatened. Tom took the tearful boy back and then headed for the state capital, where a child-welfare supervisor would decide if a19-year-old could be allowed to take care of Andy.

Kept waiting all morning, Tom finally marched into the bureaucrat’s office. When the man threatened to call a marshal, Tom shot back, “Go ahead and put me in jail. I’ll make sure the courtroom is full of reporters. Then we’ll see what folks say when they find out what happens to kids who are down on their luck.”

Tom got Andy back—and the license making him the first single foster parent in Missouri history. A year later, he was awarded custody of Dan, whose drunken father had killed the boy’s mother. To make ends meet while Tom finished school, the three did laundry for other students and sold pizzas door to door.

After graduation Tom visited George Meuschke, a Marshall insurance man who was much taken by this “young man with a big idea and no money.” Meuschke enlisted friends, and Tom soon had a board of advisers and a down payment on his dram: a place in the country for boys to grow up in, like a family. What he needed next was someone to hammer it all together. And here I came with the shingles.

Over the next six summers, helped by the boys, we wired, plumbed, papered, plastered, painted. By “we”, I mean Tom’s growing legion of volunteers. The founder of Butterfield Boys Ranch was a lot like another Missouri Tom: Sawyer. He’d “flash his sore toe”—tell the shocking story of Andy—and then let others in their outrage whitewash the fence.

Not because he was too proud or lazy, but because he was just too busy. Thanks to ministers and police officers, schools and hospitals, Tom’s boys soon numbered 16. There were boys alone in the world through no fault of their own, but there were also boys who, because of repeated arrests for theft, vandalism, drug abuse, assault, arson, had been taken from their parents. Others had suffered the gamut of mistreatment, from vicious beatings to sexual abuse and abandonment.

No one was turned away, not even Mark, a chubby 11-year-old Tom had found lost and reeling from sniffing glue. No one was ever made to leave, either. Not even jug-eared Johnny Kates, 13, who twice ran away from the ranch in stolen cars.

When he wasn’t welcoming more boys, Tom was raising money to care for them—button-holing potential donors, addressing clubs, churches, schools. “Either these are nobody’s children or they’re everybody’s,” he’d say. “What if you and your wife were killed in an accident, as Andy’s parents were? What if nobody was left to care for your children?” Once he had them thinking, he applied the clincher: “Come out to the ranch and see for yourself what your dollars, food packages and old clothes can do.” If they did, they were his for life.

He kept up a steady drumfire of “Dear Stranger” letters. At first we were lucky if these appeals didn’t cost more in postage than they brought in. But Tom had a knack for building support, and by 1970 most of those strangers had a name, and money started to come in. That was the year I gave up teaching to work full time for the ranch.

As the boys grew more numerous, we had endless run-ins with social workers, who kept us toeing the line on regulations for minimum square footage, number of occupants, nutrition—and provided ballast to Tom’s often airy efforts to give his boys a home. For when it came to hiding extra kids or stretching rations, Tom was not above cutting corners. “Mister Butterfield,” one irate social worker finally said, “this thing is a white elephant. Either get it up to code or I’ll shut you down.”

I had never seen Tom so somber. Fortunately, Larry Arrowood, a college classmate of Tom’s, came through with a check from his fraternity. Arrowood later became our business manager, a tribute to Tom’s infectious talent for involving others. For that matter, a steady stream of students and townspeople also joined us year after year, cooking, sewing, scrubbing, and helping the boys with their homework.

Tom believed that not more than two dozen boys at a time should share the kind of attention he insisted on giving them. His basic credo was a simple as a sampler: all a child needs is someone to love and be loved by. But he realized they might need more than he knew how to give. In 1970 he got his master’s in social work. Even so, Tom learned more from his boys—and I learned more from him—than either of us ever got out of a book.

Take Mike, for instance. He was a chronic hothead, wise beyond his 17 years. Tom once corrected him, and Mike sassed back. Tom tore into the hefty youth in a violent wrestling match that left them both shaken and the front room in shambles. That evening after school, Mike went to see Tom.

“Mike,” Tom said, “every home you’ve been in has kicked you out because you couldn’t resist telling someone off. You have to learn to control yourself.”

Mike looked at him and said, “How can you expect me to when you can’t?”

From then on, Tom became a model of self-control, a fact not lost on Mike. Tom learned what was probably the biggest lesson his boys had to master: how to control your emotions and not strike out blindly at life’s disappointments.

Another boy, Billy, was a 16-year-old electronics wizard who had a nasty habit of hot-wiring the door of anyone who crossed him. Tom decided his talent was worth encouraging. Billy was given a basement corner workshop, and his “shocking” behavior subsided.

By 1971 Tom had enough money for a three-bedroom bungalow, which was remodeled with bunk beds adapted from plans for a cattle trough! Five years later he bought and restored an old house as a residence for homeless girls. In 1977 we renovated our last residence for boys, and old farmhouse. Thanks to three Presidential citations for “exceptional service to others” and a mailing list of 30,000 contributors, Butterfield Youth Services could now boast not only four residences housing 26 young people but a downtown complex of classrooms for special instruction, a gym and an art studio.

Then Tom got another idea. Why not a film about Butterfield Boys Ranch? For the next two years he besieged Hollywood with the same persistence that 20 years earlier had battered down the doors of the state bureaucracy. The result was a poignant CBS television movie shown in December 1981, “The Children Nobody Wanted.”

Tom was a 42-year-old man now, his generous beard streaked with gray. As usual he was working night and day. When I saw him next, at the film’s premiere in Marshall, he’d lost weight and looked thin and tired. I had the impression the Tom Sawyer in him had delegated too well. He had filled every job he’d ever done at Butterfield Youth Services with competent, dedicate people. There remained nothing, really, for him to do.

He returned to the West Coast to try and interest the networks in turning the movie into a television series. In the fall of 1982 his sister, Peggy, got a call from Los Angeles: Tom was hospitalized. She flew out to find him bedridden with acute pneumonia complicated by a viral infection. No sooner had they begun to talk than Tom’s face went ashen. Both lungs had collapsed.

Several of his now-grown boys flew out to see him. Tom was on a respirator, unable to speak. Twenty-six-year-old Mark, the one-time glue sniffer turned respiratory therapist, came—and his trained eyes dimmed with tears.

Twelve days before Christmas, Tom Butterfield died with Peggy at his side. The memorial service in Marshall was thronged with most of the 150 men and women who had passed through our portals. In the first row were Andy, mow married and working on a farm, and Dan, who cooks in a restaurant and does volunteer work with the elderly. Billy was there, too, a married homeowner and well-paid technician. Mike wasn’t there. He had died in Vietnam.

After the scheduled remarks, the minister asked if anyone else wanted to speak. Johnny Kates, now 31 and a minister, rose: “Soon after I came to the ranch, a couple of the boys and I snitched a car and went joy riding, not once but twice. We wrecked one car. When the police brought us back, Tom said we were going to get the licking of our lives. We did, but as he paddled us, tears streamed down his face.

“I’ll always be grateful for the home Tom gave me. I still feel part of the ranch. I can always go there and feel good, because it’s my home.” Johnny stepped back.

Then something happened that I had never seen or heard of at a memorial service: everybody stood up and cheered.