University honors ‘architect of student life’

The life of Bill Butler, the University of Miami's first vice president for student affairs, was celebrated April 29 at the Shalala Student Center. Photo: Jenny Abreu for the University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

The life of Bill Butler, the University of Miami's first vice president for student affairs, was celebrated April 29 at the Shalala Student Center. Photo: Jenny Abreu for the University of Miami

University honors ‘architect of student life’

By Michael R. Malone
William R. ‘‘Bill’’ Butler, who served as the University of Miami’s first vice president for student affairs for more than three decades, was celebrated as a “champion for students” during a memorial service in the Shalala Student Center grand ballroom on Friday.

With remembrances and anecdotes that evoked laughter, tears, and gratitude, hymns that he loved, and even signature outfits that he wore, nearly 200 friends, family, and a number of his countless mentees both students and staff gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of “Dr. B.” —William R. Butler—at the April 29 afternoon ceremony.

The legendary administrator, who played an instrumental role in changing institutional policy so that students would have greater power in making decisions that directly affected them, retired in 1997 after 32 years of service. He passed away on Dec. 30, 2021, at the age of 95. 

Butler was remembered as “remarkably generative and generous,” by President Julio Frenk. “Bill’s dedication to service, his heart for students, and his deep love of our community remains a gift palpable on campus and will live on through the countless individuals whose experiences were enriched by his enduring wisdom,” Frenk said.

“The Department of Student Affairs that he poured his passion into building over 30 years is one of the great strengths and a point of pride of the University to this day,” the president added. 

Frenk also recounted how welcomed he felt, even before arriving to become the University’s president in 2015, when Butler—then long retired—sent him a handwritten letter and copy of his book “Embracing the World: The University of Miami from Cardboard College to International and Global Acclaim.” 

Patricia A. Whitely, senior vice president for student affairs, remembered the man she succeeded in 1996 as a “mentor, friend, and racquetball partner.” She noted Butler’s extraordinary list of accomplishments that included increasing the University’s international reputation and enrollment, generating the first scholarships for women’s athletics, helping in the creation of the residential college system, overseeing the building of the campus’ first wellness center, and founding the Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development.    

“Dr. Butler was the architect of student life at the University of Miami and was front and center on mentoring and advising generations of student leaders and staff members—a number of whom subsequently went on to become college presidents and vice presidents,” Whitely pointed out. 

Ryan Holmes, associate vice president and dean of students, sang the national anthem, and Becky Butler, one of Butler’s four children, joined other singers and the Hammond-Butler Gospel Choir to sing a medley of Butler’s favorite hymns as part of a musical interlude at the memorial service. 

Rick Artman, president emeritus of Viterbo University and one of 12 men and women who have served to date as a Student Affairs ombudsperson, a program initiated in 1969 by Butler, learned “the power of presence” from Butler. 

“Bill was a marvelous leader—strong and calm under pressure—who taught by example that students were the central focus of our work,” Artman said. “He was a true champion of students rights and passionate and relentless in making the University a better university.”

Bill Butler memorial celebration

Bill Butler's three daughters at the memorial celebration in honor of their father, from left, Becky Butler, Barbara Pierce, and Jennifer Wade.

Freddy Stebbins, an educator and University student government president from 1988-89, wore Butler’s signature outfit—white slacks, blue suit jacket, and orange-striped tie—to honor the former administrator. 

Stebbins recounted three remarkable Butler traits: his charm, “was there anyone more charming?”; his spirit, “not just for UM, but for life”; and his effectiveness as vice president for student affairs, “he always knew what to say to put you at ease or resolve the situation, and he always made you feel as a student that you were important.” 

Renee Dickens Callans, assistant vice president for Student Life, remembered Butler for being at the forefront of leading University change. 

“Whether helping the University community to better understand the needs of students or advocating for multiculturalism and more diverse voices, his fingerprints of service leadership and enduring love of the University are found everywhere on campus,” Dickens Callans said. 

“Dr. B. envisioned a more vibrant community that celebrates customs, cultures, and traditions from all over the world,” she added. “There’s no one like Dr. Butler and, though I’ll miss his warm smile and friendly face, I’m forever grateful for him, and the University of Miami is such a better place because of him as well.” 

Alumnus Martin Weinkle was a sophomore at the University in 1967 when he remembered visiting Butler’s home together with other activist students one midnight seeking to resolve an unprecedented problem involving students on campus.   

“He listened to us deep into the night. I’ll never forget the solution he helped to cobble or the time he spent with us,” Weinkle said. “He would engage with each of us in a personal manner and honored us for who we were and for what we were engaged in.” 

Weinkle maintained a friendship with Butler that lasted for five decades, and he and his wife, Anne, published Butler’s three books through their publishing company. He said that Butler intensified his commitment to supporting students’ participation in University affairs after he witnessed the killing of four students on the Kent State University campus by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970. 

“That really changed him, and after that day he committed himself to further students’ rights at the University in a new way,” Weinkle said. 

“Bill Butler never met a student that he didn’t try to help in some way—to get them a job or listen and offer advice to help them along,” Weinkle added. “He believed in the potential in each and every one of us.”

Donate to the William R. Butler Volunteer Service Fund.