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H-E-B’s Howard Butt Jr. dies; led family food chain’s board for many years

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Howard Butt Jr., president of the H.E. Butt Foundation, vice chairman of the H-E-B board for many years and the brother of H-E-B CEO Charles Butt, died Sunday evening at the age of 89 due to complications related to Parkinson’s.

Butt was born in Kerrville on Sept. 8, 1927 and grew up in the food business founded by his grandmother, Florence, in 1905. He attended Baylor University in Waco and graduated in 1947 with a degree in business, then married his longtime sweetheart, Barbara Dan Gerber.

As a bridge builder between the secular and religious worlds, Butt will be remembered for bringing 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.”

In his early years as a businessman and lay preacher, 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. Billy Graham credited 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.”

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 spoke often about his bouts with depression, recognizing the benefit to others in acknowledging that everyone has struggles.

“Christianity that does not change us in our homes will never change the world,” 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.”

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 United States, with annual sales of more than $23 billion. With over 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. In North Texas, H-E-B has stores with the H-E-B name as well as the Central Market stores. 

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 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 – almost 1 million to date – including from churches and other non-profit groups.

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

Howard E. Butt, Jr., 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, Texas 78029-0670. A memorial service celebrating the life and witness of Howard E. Butt, Jr., will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Trinity Baptist Church, 319 E. Mulberry Ave., San Antonio, Texas 78212. The Porter Loring Mortuary is assisting the family with arrangements.

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