Butch John, former CL wordsmith, dead at 61
Butch John, as is the case with most superb writers, cared deeply about words. He chose his words carefully.
So, once upon a time Butch wrote a story for The Clarion-Ledger about then-Major League Baseball star Lenny Dykstra. In it, he referred to Dykstra’s “tony, northeast Jackson home.” A copy editor, who was having a bad day, changed “tony” to “tiny.” And that’s how it appeared in the newspaper.
Dykstra’s manse was by no means tiny. Tony, yes. Tiny? Just the opposite.
Had he a gun, Butch, normally a low-key, even-keel guy, might have shot the poor guy. Years later, he was able to laugh about it.
Butch John, who in 16 years at the CL covered Ole Miss and the New Orleans Saints, wrote sports columns and news stories, died today in Louisville, Ky., after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He was 61 and is survived by his wife, Jana John, who was a talented features editor with The Clarion-Ledger (and never, ever would have changed “tony” to “tiny.”)
Butch and I made many a trip together – mainly to cover Ole Miss or the Saints. For much of that time he was working for me and making me look good.
Excuse the language, but we had one hell of a sports staff back in those days. We routinely won national and regional sports writing and sports section awards. Butch was one of the main reasons. He wrote well and he wrote often. He was a fine writer and he worked hard. He was versatile in that he handled news, features and columns with equal proficiency.
Despite all the fine writing he did and all the awards he won, Butch became most famous for a Super Bowl question he did not ask.
Remember? This was 1988. Doug Williams, the ex-Grambling standout, was the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl.
In his first press conference of Super Bowl week, Williams was asked over and over, in many different ways, about the significance of being the first black quarterback to start football’s biggest game.
Butch tired of the questioning and asked his own question: “Doug, it’s obvious you’ve been a black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?”
Williams misheard Butch’s question. “What,” Williams asked, “how long have I been a black quarterback?”
Somehow or another – terrible reporting, actually – Butch was quoted as asking the question Williams mistakenly thought he had heard.
As is the case with everything Super Bowl-related, the story was repeated over and over. It became Super Bowl legend. People still bring it up every year as in, “Who was that dumb Mississippi reporter who asked Doug Williams that stupid question?”
Butch was not dumb. He did not ask stupid questions.
He was a fine writer who cared about his words. And that’s how he should be remembered.