Michael Herbert “Dad” Butler – Park 61

GRAND OLD MAN OF SPORTS

As far as I know, he’s the only man who gets his name listed in the telephone book as ‘Dad’.

 – George Stark, beloved Detroit News Columnist, 1948

Dad Butler’s incredible athletic ability set him ahead of the pack; a strong and homey nickname became his brand.  Butler simply didn’t want to be missed.  His response to Stark’s commentary:  “That’s to make it easy for the lads to find me.  They come from all over America, you know, and if they happened to be looking for me, I wouldn’t want them to miss the name, in all that fine print.”

The newspaper reported that he never forgot a player he coached. Dad also kept a light on at night in the apt. so he wouldn't be missed. Photo: 1932 Tower
Newspapers reported that he never forgot a player he coached. Dad also kept a light on at night so he wouldn’t be missed. Photo: 1932 Tower

 

Butler was born in March 1870 in Catskill, New York.  He was the eldest of five siblings; the son of a stone quarryman.   He grew into a man of interesting feats. 

At 17 years, he trekked out west and became well known for foot racing and practicing with the Ute band of Native Americans.  At this juncture, foot racing was an endurance sport with a gambling element.  There are many claims that he amassed a significant amount of $ by betting his skill against racing their desert quarter horses.   This intense practice groomed him to return east and become the first professional foot racer to finish the half mile under two minutes.  He clocked in at 1:59.   When interest waned, Butler turned to the “sweet science”.  Boxing.

THE MAGIC TOUCH

An excellent boxer himself, Butler began training and coaching many a pugilist.  In 1896, under his guiding hand, the small and ferocious George ‘the Saginaw Kid’ Lavine defeated the world champion Dick Burge.

 The Windy City was next.  In 1897, Butler became the coach of The Chicago Track Club.  Here, he developed Jimmy Lightbody who went on to win multiple medals in the 1904 Olympics.  While in Chicago, Butler met the young Knute Rockne  becoming his first coach. 

 In 1907, Butler moved westward starting a private coaching and training school for athletes in Portland, Oregon.  He accepted a position of track coach at Oregon State Agricultural College in 1919.   Already known as ‘Dad’, his Aggies took firsts and second place in some seriously storied track meets. 

Detroit became acquainted with Butler’s professional athletic management in 1927.  Dad had garnered assistant professorship of Physical Education at the University of Detroit.  He formulated the track and field program for the school as it had none; he also coached varsity football.  

Seated on the left with his U of D Varsity squad, 1932. Photo: 1932 Tower
Seated on the left with his U of D Varsity squad, 1932. Photo: 1932 Tower

This would be his final move, spending the remainder of his life as a Detroiter.  Outside of the sports world, ‘Dad’ was husband of Catherine and the father of two children – Bancroft and Mary.  The Butler family resided on West McNichols in Highland Park across from the Detroit Golf Club.  In the 1930’s as a sideline, Butler judged three of Joe Louis’ most important fights.  With a full and successful career behind him, he retired from U of D in 1944. 

In 1950, Butler accepted a position on the Detroit Parks and Recreation Commission alongside Bernard Lasky, Willis Watts O’Hair, and Vaughn Reid, eventually becoming President of the Commission.  Additionally, he was the Director of Ford Motor’s recreational program during the 1950’s.   He tendered his final resignation to Mayor Louis Marini in 1959“It’s time for me to turn out to pasture, relax and think back of the few races that I’ve won in my heyday

Butler died on August 1, 1962.  His sports legacy was popular with journalists well into the 1970’s.  The Michael H. Dad Butler Memorial Playground near Conant and Eight Mile came to fruition in 1963. Today, it is wonderfully updated and a boon to the neighborhood.     

 Copyright 2015, Andrea Gallucci
Great playground.
Great playground.
A dedication plaque.
Thanks to Shirley Burch for her neighborhood activism and all the folks who tirelessly give to ensure Detroit kids have a great place to play. Strong parks make strong communities.