Here's the thing: David Butler, God love him, dared to be dull. He was bespectacled, bookish, blunt. Slow to get the joke, especially when it was on him. Straight as an arrow, exasperatingly thorough, extremely earnest, smart, plain, pragmatic, wonkish. He was a stickler, a self-described curmudgeon.
He vacationed reluctantly. His mother recalled getting a serious little reminder from him, as a boy, that read: "Mom--don't forget to wake me at 8 for cartoons."
He was, in short, everything you want in the guy who edits your newspaper.
Fortunately for readers--and for his colleagues--that was what he lived to do.
I knew David from time spent with him around midnight or 1 a.m. at the Houston Post, waiting for final proofs. Someone's always got to hang around a newspaper until the wee hours in case you have to tear up the front page for a nuclear explosion or the death of a princess. I usually just wanted to go home, or maybe catch a drink before last call at the seedy Jockey Club nearby where Post copy editors retired after earlier deadlines to recap the night's events and insult one another.
David, ultimate newspaper geek, seemed content to remain at work, tidying up tedious last-minute details. We'd talk, about this or that. I found him extremely serious, a bit awkward socially, obviously intelligent. A San Antonio native, he had graduated from Houston's Rice University, the Harvard of the Southwest. He saw no point in trying to hide his intelligence, to jazz himself up, to go along to get along. I'm sure he often felt he didn't fit in, and I'm sure that knowledge at times caused him pain. But he stoutly, stubbornly, remained who he knew himself to be.
It's not that we didn't like him, but not everyone wants to talk Camus in the newsroom. Of course he was kidded. Of course he took it seriously. Even his mom kidded him. For his 30th birthday, she sent a strip-o-gram and a dozen pizzas to the newsroom. David, beet-red, kept his eyes on his computer as the stripper got down to her leopard-print bikini, amid whoops from the sports department. David, doggedly editing copy, looked up once, sideways, to ask, "Lester, what's the headline order on this story?"
During softball season, a Post team played the Houston Chronicle every Sunday before work. David, distinctly unathletic, went out every week and tried to play. The guys stuck him in right field, and nicknamed him "The Toy Cannon."
Afterward, when the guys wanted to have a beer and discuss sports or the new chick in features, David wanted Scotch and a nuanced discussion of the Open Records Act.
Newspapers--he was tirelessly devoted to them. Though I wondered if he wouldn't have liked to have had something else to be devoted to, too.
One Christmas Eve, 1989 I think, the newsroom was bustling as usual earlier in the evening but most everyone, anxious to get home to wives and husbands and kids and the tree, took off as soon as possible. By 2 a.m. Christmas Day there were three people left on the floor: me, the editor in chief and David. When I left, David was still at his computer.
Sometime in the last year or so, I ran into David on the Metro in Washington. It had been years, but he recognized me right away. After the Houston Post closed, he'd gone to Europe with the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and had recently moved here to work in the Washington bureau. He was nicely dressed, still serious, still talking newspapers. David and I were friends, but not great friends. I suspect many former Houston Post colleagues would say the same.
So I think we are all stunned by our reaction, and the depth of our sadness, at the news that our dear, dull, friend David was murdered, out of the blue--going home, as he had countless times before, from a long late night at a newspaper.
It's as if our breath has been taken away, and hasn't yet been given back to us. Maybe because we well know those strange small hours, our 5 p.m., our quitting time, the world's middle of the night. Maybe because, for all his erudition and intelligence, David was an innocent. Maybe because, though he seemed not to be a part of things, it turned out he was.
Maybe it was just the breathtaking horror at how a plain, upright man, who guided himself so strictly by his own code of honor, could be so swiftly obliterated by someone who knew neither honor nor humanity.
David had stayed late Friday, July 14, in downtown Washington for the 1 a.m. deadline for the newspaper's Pacific edition. Early Saturday morning he took the Metro home to the Court House stop four blocks from his condo.
From there, all that's known is that police received a complaint about loud voices and arrived about 1:45 a.m. to find a body in a used car sales lot, perhaps a block from David's front door. They also found his business card and contacted Stars and Stripes, where he had been due to work the next day, and where he never arrived.
He was 42. Whatever he walked into, I'm sure he never saw it coming. He had been beaten so badly it took until late Monday afternoon for police to identify him, through his fingerprints.
Now I sit on the Metro every night, on the same route David took, and I can't get my mind around the absolute weirdness of thinking of him sitting there, riding from station to station, unaware he had only eight minutes left to live . . . six minutes . . . four minutes . . .
I can see him in my mind's eye, that serious, bespectacled face in the odd bright greenish-yellow light of the subway car, perhaps looking out into the darkness, perhaps looking over another of the many newspapers he loved to read, going home, alone.
And each time the train approaches the Court House station, I think: David, don't get off the train. Just stay on the train.
Please, don't get off the train.
It's late. Just fall asleep. Sleep through your stop. Sleep till the train reaches its final stop for the night. Wake up. Feel sheepish. Realize, with irritation, that you'll have to pay for a cab back to Arlington. Tell the story on yourself, seriously, the next day at work. Get teased by other editors.
Let whoever it is waiting for you outside the station get tired of hanging around in the dark and take his misery elsewhere, instead of visiting it upon you.
I can see David picking up his briefcase, standing before the doors, expressionless, patient.
"Doors opening," says the disembodied Metro voice.
David. For God's sake. Stay on the train.
He steps off. The doors close.