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Opinion How a Christian business tycoon used his depression to help tens of thousands

Howard E. Butt Jr. at his home in San Antonio in October 2004. (Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News)

In the early 1960s, Howard E. Butt Jr. was both a prominent Texas business executive and a rising star in Christian preaching. On weekdays, he crisscrossed Texas helping to expand H-E-B, the booming family grocery business. On weekends, he traveled to distant U.S. cities as a preacher on the church revival circuit, appearing alongside his friend, the famed evangelist Billy Graham. He had a loving wife and three doting children. He possessed talent, charm, wit and limitless opportunity.

But in retrospect, the most important quality Howard E. Butt Jr. had was a touch of self-awareness. He knew the truth about himself: that he was beset, as he put it, by “all kinds of anxieties and fears.” Butt suffered from a deep and persistent depression. And he knew he needed professional help.

“I couldn’t tell anybody,” he later wrote. “In Baptist or evangelical circles, you didn’t flaunt your relationship with a psychiatrist; you hid it.”

If the stigma of mental illness has changed since the 1960s, that change has been slow and remains incomplete. Butt was a man ahead of his time by half a century and counting. He called out depression as a nameable illness, a shareable struggle, an affliction common to the best of us, capable of touching any one of us. He spent the rest of his life telling his story and creating a setting for others to do the same, and so began to find healing.

When Butt passed away in his San Antonio home on Sunday evening at the age of 89, the state of Texas took notice. H-E-B is now one of the state’s most beloved success stories; the grocery store founded by Butt’s grandmother in 1905 grew into a food-and-drug empire that encompasses most of Texas and northern Mexico. Texans love to love the things they love about their state, and the H-E-B stores are no exception. Ask a former Texan what they miss most about the state, and chances are their list will start with H-E-B.

As the modern history of Texas is written, Butt will figure prominently not in the history of business so much as the history of religion. For Christians of a certain set, he is associated with another brand: Laity Lodge, a spiritual retreat center nestled in the Frio River Canyon, a spectacular stretch of property deep in the Texas Hill Country. Butt founded Laity Lodge in 1961, and it remains a cherished destination for thousands of people.

The Lodge does not regularly tout the names on its guest register, but the center hosts a heady mix of artists, business executives and scholars who view the property as sacred territory. Its surroundings are somehow both subtle and astounding — a translucent river of emerald green, canyon walls that stretch to 400 feet, curling Texas oaks that filter the sunlight, wildflowers that flourish in spring. To be there is to be enveloped by the place.

Cellphone signals don’t reach the Frio River Canyon, and the lodge’s hospitality is legendary; once you arrive, you rest, because that is all you have to do. (Most Laity Lodge retreats are open to the public, though the facility is closed for renovation through Spring 2017.)

Because of the Lodge’s remote location and unassuming attitude, Butt’s influence on American Christianity of the past century has been little studied. But I doubt historians will overlook it. Though late in life Butt broadcast hundreds of short radio spots — 60-second bursts of inspirational wisdom called “The High Calling of Our Daily Work” — much of his work was performed around dinner tables, on sofas, or from podiums facing rooms of just a few dozen people, with no cameras broadcasting to the outside world.

His vision was for the “renewal of the laity” — the mental and spiritual improvement of everyday Christians. He built Laity Lodge as the chief expression of that vision, and his work there was, by design, slow, gradual and consistent.

The Lodge emerged directly from Butt’s bout with depression. He had reckoned with the fact that he did not want to run the grocery business. (His younger brother, Charles, oversaw the company’s continued expansion and continues to serve as chairman and CEO.)

Butt’s parents offered him 1,937 acres of Hill Country ranch land they had purchased for the family foundation. They intended to use the property to give underprivileged children outdoor education opportunities and provide camping and retreat facilities to communities that would not otherwise be able to experience the outdoors. They reserved a portion of the property for their son and the recovery he wanted to offer tired and hurting people. (The H.E. Butt Family Foundation continues to run a popular educational program and no-cost facility program, in addition to youth and family camps. Over 25,000 people come to the Frio River Canyon every year.)

Mental health is something of a Butt family legacy. Mary Holdsworth Butt, Howard’s mother, served on the governing board of Texas State Hospitals (that would become the Texas Department of Mental Health). She was the first woman to serve on a Texas state board, and she took to the work fiercely, demanding better treatment of patients in state mental hospitals. Her son’s work flowed from hers, though he focused on the less severe but more widespread — indeed, commonplace — ailments of anxiety and depression. Butt’s tactic was to speak transparently of his own struggle and teach commitments to rest, silence and a nurturing community. He established the lodge as a place for guests to practice these commitments and, hopefully, carry them back into their daily lives.

Today Butt’s work seems pioneering to the point of prophetic. Modern life, he worried, leaves us frenetic, distracted from one another, from ourselves, from God. Butt remained a man of the world — a voracious reader and learner, a convener of conversations with far-flung experts — and his craft was creating a distant yet welcoming space within that world, a place set apart, where people can finally have enough room, time, quiet and care to know themselves and be known. May his work continue.

Patton Dodd (@pattondodd) is the executive director of media and communications at The H.E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas.

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