William R. Butler, the University’s first vice president for student affairs, passes away

William R. "Bill" Butler, vice president emeritus for student affairs, celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016. Photo: Jenny Abreu for the University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

William R. "Bill" Butler, vice president emeritus for student affairs, celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016. Photo: Jenny Abreu for the University of Miami

William R. Butler, the University’s first vice president for student affairs, passes away

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
From helping to spearhead the construction of an on-campus wellness center to starting an initiative that offers volunteer opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students, Butler was known for his dedication to students. He served the University for more than three decades.

Bill Butler thought it was just a phone call to exchange pleasantries. But when he picked up the handset that spring day in 1965 to speak with University of Miami president Henry King Stanford, he realized it was a call that could change his life forever. 

Stanford wanted Butler, who was then a promising young administrator at Ohio University, to be his vice president for student affairs—and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

So, he sent Butler and his wife, Virginia, two airline tickets. The couple flew to Miami, spending six days looking over the Coral Gables Campus, talking with students, and visiting the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. 

After Butler returned to Ohio, two weeks would pass before he decided to accept Stanford’s offer. “Virginia and I came down for good, and we were never sorry,” Butler once acknowledged. 

William R. Butler, first vice president for student affairsWilliam R. "Bill" Butler, who served as the University of Miami’s first vice president for student affairs for more than three decades, playing an instrumental role in changing institutional policy so that students would have greater power in making decisions that directly affected them, passed away on Dec. 30. He was 95. 

“Bill Butler was a force for good, who left his mark on the University of Miami and all who knew him,” said President Julio Frenk. “His legacy of service, his heart for students, and his deep love for our community remains palpable on campus and will live on through the countless individuals whose experiences were enriched by his enduring wisdom. We will miss Dr. Butler dearly, and we extend our deepest condolences to all of his loved ones—especially his four children, Michael, Barbara, Jennifer, and Rebecca.” 

Patricia A. Whitely, senior vice president for student affairs, said Butler “was a tremendous mentor to me and hundreds of others, and he will be missed. He always kept the interests of students first and foremost and involved them in all decision-making. The changes and programs he incorporated during his tenure helped shape the student experience at the University of Miami over three decades. He was a visionary with an inclusive heart.”

Butler’s accomplishments during his 32-year tenure at the University ran the gamut, from starting the student-run radio station, WVUM, to helping to establish the Hecht and Stanford residential colleges. 

For 17 years, he was responsible for admissions and financial aid, playing a key role in making the University more diverse as it boosted its enrollment of Black and international students. 

He created a special planning group—the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee—to ensure that funds collected from student fees were properly distributed among the institution’s student organizations. 

In 1989 Butler founded a center offering students the opportunity to volunteer for service-oriented organizations throughout Miami-Dade County. Today, that initiative bears his name—the William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development. 

He helped spearhead the construction of the Herbert Wellness Center, which opened a year before he retired. And he served as a professor of education, teaching a course in the University’s School of Education and Human Development. He also was a member of the University’s Iron Arrow Honor Society. 

During his retirement, Butler published three books that raised money for the Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership. 

But it was his dedication to students that made Butler famous. Above all, he wanted students to have a voice, and he made sure that they did. 

“The whole campus environment changed so that [the students] became an integral part of the University community along with the faculty and administration,” Butler once explained. “They were making decisions about their governance and how their fees would be allocated.” 

He considered it his “greatest privilege” to serve the more than 100,000 students who were enrolled at the University during his tenure. Many of those students remained friends with Butler long after they graduated. 

Born in 1926 in Robinson, Illinois, Butler was raised in a small rural community of about 4,000 residents. His father drove a truck for a fruit and vegetable company, and his mother worked for an electric company. 

When he was still a boy, Butler’s father moved the family to Newark, Ohio, to take over the family bakery. And after Butler graduated from high school in 1943, he worked in that bakery, delivering breads, pastries, and other baked goods to about 150 customers. 

But Butler wanted to do more. World War II was still raging at the time, and Butler could no longer squelch the powerful urge to serve his country.

He desperately wanted to enlist in the Navy, but at only 17, he needed his parents’ consent. “With quite a bit of coaxing, I finally convinced them,” Butler once recalled. 

So, at an age when many of his friends were still in high school, Butler, after eight weeks of basic training at a naval base just outside Chicago, boarded a ship with 5,000 other troops and set sail for the Pacific. Their destination: New Guinea, where he would be stationed for four months. 

Then it was on to Brisbane, Australia, where he served in a radio unit that provided technical communications equipment for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s beach landings. 

By then, Butler was 18, and had reached the rank of storekeeper technician second class. His final stop in the war would be the Philippines. “We were closer to the scene of battle and were expecting to invade Japan,” said Butler. “We didn’t expect that two atomic bombs would be dropped.”

After the war, Butler moved back to Newark, attending Ohio University on the GI Bill, and earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in psychology from that institution. 

His career in higher education spanned nearly a half-century, starting in 1951 at the University of Kansas (KU), where he was a teaching fellow and earned his doctoral degree in counseling psychology. 

He served as assistant dean of men and international student advisor at KU from 1953 to 1957. It was at Kansas that he assigned legendary basketball star Wilt Chamberlain to a room in one of the university’s new dormitories, taking on the additional challenge of finding a bed that could accommodate Chamberlain’s 7-foot 1-inch frame. 

Butler then took a position at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, as dean of men and assistant professor. He returned to Ohio University in 1959 to become dean of students. 

It was in 1965 that he received that memorable phone call from Stanford, who had heard glowing reports about Butler’s administrative skills and his way with students and wanted him to serve as vice president of student affairs, a newly created position at the University. Butler served in that capacity until his retirement in 1997. 

He enjoyed fishing and cycling, and he was the author of “Embracing the World: The University of Miami from Cardboard College to International and Global Acclaim.”

Butler is survived by four children—Michael Butler and his wife XiaPing; Barbara Pierce and her husband Michael; Jennifer Wade; and Rebecca Butler—and four grandchildren, Patrick John Butler, Courtney Wade, Sarah Pierce, and Emily Birdsong.

Donate to the William R. Butler Volunteer Service Fund here.