Bill Butler's work with young people in the District of Columbia has become legendary: in 30 years, he has helped as many as 200 athletes with scholarships and counseling.
Butler started out as a coach and counselor for the Metropolitan Boys Club in 1950. He quickly became upset over the fact that young D.C. athletes were not being offered scholarships upon completion of high school.
"A lot of these kids were All-Met and extremely talented," said Butler, "but they were always overlooked. One reason was because they always had poor grades and another was lack of publicity."
In 1966, Butler laid the groundwork to get exposure for area athletes, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball finals were held at University of Maryland.
Butler seized the opportunity to showcase some of D.C.'s basketball talent. He called Jack Gardner, then a coach at the University of Utah and in the area for the basketball finals, and talked him into coming to a nearby gym where a tournament was being held.
"There were about 60 players performing and . . Coach (Gardner) later remarked that he had never seen so much talent in one gym," recalled Butler.
The Utah coach agreed to take four of the players, but none of the athletes qualified for University of Utah because of low grades.
However, Gradner was moved by Butler's efforts to help these young people and subsequently arranged for the four athletes to attend two junior colleges in the West, one in Utah and another in Idaho.
"One kid had to go day and night and to summer school to get out of high school," said Butler. "Once they got out to the junior colleges, all they did was study because that was all they could do. It paid off because one ended up with a 3.5 and the other a 3.2."
After his success with the first group of four, Butler's reputation spread among recruiters and coaches. Universities and junior colleges in Washington State, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Indiana began to seek out this gentle black man with the magnetic personality. i
"Coaches and recruiters started asking, 'Where do these guys come from?'" Butler recalled. "Someone would say, 'A guy named Bill Butler knows where all the talent is. He's always sending kids somewhere.'"
Some of Butler's proteges during his years of coaching, counseling and providing fatherly advice have been Austin Carr (Mackin, Notre Dame, Cleveland Cavaliers), Curtis Perry (Western, Southwest Missouri, Phoenix Suns), John Austin (DeMatha, Boston College), Ed Epps (Cardozo, Utah State) and Billy Gaskins (Cardozo, Oregon) -- as well as Sugar Ray Leonard's cousin Odell Leonard.
Probably the most gratifying success story in Butler's rich experience is that of Willie Wood.
Wood started his athletic career under Butler at No. 2 Boys Club many years ago. With Butler's constant guidance and fatherly lectures on the importance of education, Wood won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he became the first black quarterback and the first black co-captain in the Pacific Conference.
Despite Wood's brilliant collegaite career, he was snubbed by the National Football League.
"He was somewhat small and he had been injury-prone in college so the NFL didn't think it was worth the risk," said Butler. "Wood kept saying, 'Mr. Butler, I want to play pro ball; I know I can play,'" Butler said. 'Eight clubs turned him down after I contacted them, so I figured Green Bay was our last resort.
It was Vince Lombardi's first year as coach and they had won only one or two games the year before. I knew there was no place for them to go but up. I wrote them a letter and asked them to take a look at him. They did and later signed him as a free agent."
The rest is history. Wood went on to a brilliant career, earning All-Pro seven times as a defensive back. He later became the first black coach of the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell before it folded. He was recently named head coach of the Toronto Argonauts, thus becoming the first black head coach in Canadian Football league history.
Butler himself is no stranger to firsts. He helped recruit Freddie Graves, the first black basketball player ever to win a scholarship to George Washington University. He also recruited the first black players for the University of Georgia: Ronnie Hogue (McKinley) and Tim Bassett (McKinley, New Jersey Nets).
After many years of dealing with young men needing assistance, Butler decided to try a new venture.
"As a project, I decided to try my hand at helping a female get a scholarship," said Butler. "Pat Mason was an All-Met at Eastern so I decided to check and see what I could do for her. After contacting several schools, the University of Kansas was the only one that would give her a chance.I raised enough money to take her up there for a tryout.
"The whole experience was so frustrating that I had the hiccups for three days."
Butler's perseverance paid off handsomely. Mason is now a starter on the nationally ranked Jayhawks squad and is the first female basketball player from D.C. public schools to attend a major college
Butler is a native Washingtonian who grew up in Georgetown. A self-educuated man, Butler did not get his high-school diploma until after a three-year hitch in the Marines during World War II.
Butler says that is one of the reasons he is always trying to help: "I want to set these kids get a better chance than I got. Education opens a lot of avenues for them."
Called by some the "street doctor" because of his unique ability to relate to the problems of District young people, Butler is easily recognizable in a crowded room. He is tall, with a wide smile and a deep baritone voice.
Butler and his wife Alice have two daughters, a 16-year-old Gabrielle and 14-year-old Tracey. He is now retired from at the Labor Department. There he worked as a bindery operations supervisor before being promoted to youth training opportunity specialist for the Work Incentive Program. At WIN he acted as counselor for dropouts and children of welfare mothers.
For his service there, he received a special recognition award from then secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz -- an award Butler proudly noted was the only one of its kind ever given.
Butler said that he has received nothing for his continued work with youth. He feels that he was destined to do what he is doing:
"I feel that as long as I live and have breath in my body, I will do whatever I can to lift the hopes of all young people who have problems, to see their way through this life. That's my mission in life."