Grace Butler’s last day teaching at the University of Houston campus was if not the most unforgettable day of her life then surely the most agonizing.
On that day in April of 1999, Butler abruptly departed from UH when an “insidious” disease — colon cancer — threatened her life. Following a two-year sick leave, Butler retired, receiving the professor emerita title from the College of Education.
Butler’s departure was far different from the optimism and excitement of her first days at UH in 1989. She had accepted the new position of associate vice provost for faculty affairs and was tasked to serve as a liaison between the provost and faculty and to assist in recruiting minority faculty members.
“The position enabled me to use the skills and experience that I had gained in academe through the years, and I thought it would be challenging,” Butler said. “I also recall that there was the desire for UH to become more diverse.”
Butler’s arrival came at a time marked by substantial growth at the University. The Legislature had established the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. Enrollment in the Honors College had increased ten-fold to more than 1,000 students.
For Butler, UH offered a unique opportunity in a city unlike the one from which she had relocated — College Station. There, she worked at Texas A&M University, where she was, for a time, one of two African-American professors. She also served in administrative positions and was instrumental in Texas A&M’s effort to diversify its faculty.
At UH, Butler faced some resistance from faculty members accustomed to “having direct contact with the provost.” She continued, though, to develop a rapport with faculty and created an internship program for professors, particularly women and minorities, interested in transitioning into careers as administrators. One of those participants was professor James Anderson, who retired from the University of Houston several years ago.
Butler also immersed herself into the campus community and scholarly activities. She chaired the promotion and tenure, and the Esther Farfel award committees and participated in many others. And, over the years, Butler wrote numerous monographs, book chapters and articles, including “Race, Racial Stratification and Education: A response” and “Legal and Policy Issues in Higher Education.” She also served on the editorial boards of such organizations as the National Forum for Educational Administration and Supervision.
In 1996, Butler returned to the classroom and taught the Cultural History of Education in America. “The class was fascinating,” Butler said. “One of the projects I assigned to my students was for them to interview a family member who was older than 65 and ask what was education like for you, what was society like, especially in the context of race relations.”
The project, she said, was “an eye-opener” for her students. “Many of my students didn’t realize how there was such an acceptance of a segregated society,” Butler said.
Butler thoroughly enjoyed the class so much that she continued to teach and advise three doctoral students, despite the pain she began to experience in early April 1999.
“One Saturday, I felt this gripping pain on my right side. Sunday, the pain was a little more intense,” Butler recalled. “Wednesday night, I was at my desk in Farish Hall, bent over in pain, crying. I left the office that night and never returned.”
Four days later, Butler was diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer. Surprisingly to her students but perhaps not to her family and close friends, Butler resumed advising her doctoral students from her Pearland home while she recovered from surgery and during her bout with chemotherapy.
“Cancer was not part of my students’ agenda. It was not fair to them for me to drop off the world and leave them without their adviser,” Butler said. “They were working to complete their dissertations by May. That’s why I was so determined to be there for them.”
Two years later, Butler founded Hope Through Grace, a nonprofit organization that provides education services and funding for early detection of colon cancer to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations — the disadvantaged, the medically underserved and the uninsured. The name, she added, is based on biblical scripture — 2 Thessalonians 2:16.
Butler’s advocacy has taken her from the city’s homeless shelters to the state Capitol and to Washington D.C., where she met former President George W. Bush.
She recalled that meeting vividly, noting that she was invited by the White House to participate in a round table with Bush. Butler, along with the heads of various federal health agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, discussed with the president the need to increase funding for health-related causes.
“I was seated beside President Bush,” Butler said. “We were each given three or four minutes to talk, and I knew I didn’t have enough time to tell him my entire story, but I spoke about my experience as a cancer survivor and about my nonprofit. He was riveted with what I was saying. He was warm, amicable and receptive.”
Today, Butler, who is still in remission, looks and acts younger than her 79 years. She walks daily, volunteers with her church and, of course, manages Hope Through Grace. She also enjoys traveling with her daughter to such locales as Spain, England, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, the Holy Land, Egypt and Argentina — countries she never imagined visiting when she was a skinny kid living in Louisiana, playing the clarinet and dreaming about a career in music therapy.
“I was first-chair clarinet in my high school band. The band director thought I was the greatest thing since apple pie, so I thought I wanted a career in music therapy,” Butler recalled. “I applied to a university in Iowa and was accepted.”
Eager to be college bound, Butler soon discovered that Jim Crow existed far beyond the South. In August of 1954, her parents received a letter from the university notifying them that Butler could not live on campus in a dormitory. Instead, administrators “had made arrangements with other African-American families in the community where I could live. My parents rejected that idea,” Butler said.
Disappointed but undeterred, Butler enrolled into Xavier University, where she graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in music education. She would go on to receive a master’s degree in music education from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in educational administration and supervision from New York University.
She also would fulfill her dream of pursuing a career in music education in public schools and earned numerous accolades, which included being listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who of American Women. Butler was inducted in the Phi Kappa Phi honorary society at UH and Texas A&M University and the Phi Beta Delta Honorary Society for International Scholars. She also is the recipient of the Houston branch of the American Cancer Society’s Partners in Courage Award, among other honors. In 2014, she was awarded a proclamation from Mayor Annise Parker, designating March 4 as Dr. Grace L. Butler Day in Houston.
Butler credits her success to her family and the “many blessings I received along the way.” Her father, who earned a living as a messenger, and her mother, a teacher, instilled in her a strong work ethic and pride in her heritage. Her aunt, Grace Landry, exposed her to educational administration; however, it was her sister Joyce, who died prior to completing a Ph.D., who inspired her to pursue academia and a doctorate.
“For whatever reason, my parents decided to send me to live with my Aunt Grace in Minden, Louisiana, which is east of Shreveport, when I was in the second grade,” Butler said. “My Aunt Grace was a Jeanes supervisor for the entire county — the counterpart today is the superintendent of schools.”
Moving to Minden, Butler said, “was the best decision for me. It was the best environment that I could have had for an upbringing; although, the town was segregated,” Butler said. “It was a wonderful environment, because as black youngsters we had our role models in our midst at all times. You sat beside your principal Sunday at church, or you had your teachers as your neighbors. Everybody knew everyone, and everybody cared for everyone.”
The lessons she learned from her family influence Butler to this day, she added, noting her plans for the future. “Although Hope Through Grace has helped a lot of people and prevented the onset of colon cancer, there is still much work to be done.”