Remembering the “Godfather” of the Region: East Lansing’s James Butler III

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East Lansing's James Butler III, remembered as a true leader by many.

James Butler III, known as the “Godfather of Lansing” and the “Senior Statesman” of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan, died on August 7, 2020.

Butler’s service to the Greater Lansing community – including East Lansing, where he lived for decades – was honored on Aug. 24 with a formal resolution by the East Lansing City Council. ELi recently spoke with leaders in East Lansing to bring this report.

Butler was a giant in terms of his professional and philanthropic work in the region, doggedly “looking out for people who needed looking out for,” according to Dr. Peter Graham, Executive Medical Director of Physicians Health Plan.

Butler retired from IBM after thirty years working as the Business Unit and Senior Location management executive for Government Systems for Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky – a $200,000,000 operation.

Elaine Hardy, the City’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator, recalled meeting Butler 25 years ago when he worked for IBM. At the time, Hardy was employed by the YMCA, and Butler served on the organization’s board.

She was sent to meet him to secure a donation from IBM for a new program that the YMCA was piloting. Hardy recently told ELi that if she had to describe Butler in one word, she would use “impeccable.”

Butler met with Hardy in his IBM office. She recalled that he was well-dressed and prepared with information on Hardy and her work – and she remembered to us how well he listened and how he supported the initiative.

According to Hardy, Butler took copious notes at every meeting, and by the next meeting, “he would have read those and could pick up where he left off.”

His work did not stop after his retirement from IBM. Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Butler to the Michigan Broadband Development Authority. He also worked for fifteen years as the Director of the Urban Revitalization Division for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Jason Schreiber, founder of East Lansing-based LightSpeed, told ELi that the Broadband Development Authority loaned him $12,000,000 to build his first network in the early 2000s.

“I had achieved some success in a prior business, but no reasonable person would have ever considered my financial position sufficient for taking on such a loan,” wrote Schreiber via email.

“It was an impossible deal under any lens,” he continued, “but no barrier could sustain the will of James Butler. He will be missed.”

Butler was a member of countless community organizations, including Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.; Sparrow Hospital Board of Directors; Junior Achievement of Mid Michigan; Michigan Association for Deaf, Hearing and Speech Services; Michigan Agent Orange Commission, Chairman Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce; CAP-PAC Michigan; and State Police Oral Board.

He also served on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers program; Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority; Cooley Law School Board of Directors; MSU College of Arts and Letters; Sparrow’s Physician Health Plan Board of Directors; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan; East Lansing Hannah Community Center Advisory Committee; and the City of East Lansing Financial Health Team.

After meeting Butler through the YMCA, Hardy continued her professional partnership and friendship with him when she served as the City’s liaison to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan.

She remembers fondly her quarterly meetings at Flap Jack Shack with the Commission’s elder statesmen, discussing how he could support the Commission’s work.

According to Hardy, Butler “didn’t always make the most noise, but his impact was always felt,” particularly when pushing local CEOs to improve on diversity issues.

Peter Graham of Physicians Health Plan agrees with Hardy’s assessment of Butler. Graham and Butler met when Butler served on Sparrow’s Board of Directors.

Graham remembers Butler as resolute in his work to help historically minoritized groups, people experiencing poverty, and the disabled.

“He was the conscience of our board,” said Graham “We get jaded. He never did. He never took ‘oh well’ as an answer.”

Both Graham and Hardy emphasized Butler’s organizational skills as a “task master,” recalling how he started and ended meetings strictly on schedule and cast glances at those arriving late.

But his drive was complimented by his deep compassion, sense of humor, and attention to others as human beings.

Those who knew Butler fondly remember his impeccable fashion, and, according to Graham, Butler had a collection of ties unlike anyone else in the region.

Butler’s wife, Rishan Maxwell Butler, was also involved in work with Sparrow, and according to Hardy, her love and support afforded Butler the opportunity to support his community.

“His wife was there, sacrificing time so he could serve,” she said. The couple were married for 52 years, and Rishan Butler laid her husband to rest on their wedding anniversary. They raised three children, Duane, Nikia and Charrise, together in East Lansing.

Butler was born on February 11, 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised in Washington, D.C., and Virginia by parents who served in the military.

Butler himself was a decorated veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He attended Howard College and graduated from the University of the District of Columbia before relocating to East Lansing.

His impact on the community was incalculable according to all who spoke to ELi.

At an August 24 Mayor Aaron Stephens called Butler “truly a giant in this area and in this community,” whose “legacy lives on” through the work of those who looked up to him, including many area public servants and elected officials.

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