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.

 

10 thoughts on “Butch John, former CL wordsmith, dead at 61”

  1. Rick,
    By the time I arrived at the CL, Butch was in news. While he is best known as a sports reporter, he also was an outstanding investigative reporter, a mentor to several younger reporters and interns and a pain in the a– for his editors. I loved being his editor, even if it was a for a short time. I never questioned the accuracy of his writing, never questioned his ethics in getting a story and never doubted that he hadn’t done his best to get the story — no matter how much he complained about it. I’m heartsick for Jana and those who loved him most and sad for the rest of us that this man is no longer with us.
    cyn

  2. Every time I see that Super Bowl story repeated, I email the writer to correct him. What Butch asked was a very insightful question, which he was wont to do. Alas, as they said in the great movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. And so the inaccurate story continues to make the rounds.

  3. Rick,
    I was, as you know, head of the inside operation when that tony was changed. I believe Butch did shoot the guy, if indeed looks could kill. He wasn’t all that happy with me, either. He and I had a very long trip to Portland together for a Associated Press Sports Editor’s convention, for which he had won a national award as I recall, and we had a long, long talk about ambition. He was, of course, in the pantheon of writer’s I was privileged to work with, and I’m sorry I never could do more for him and his wanting to be on a huge stage, that he deserved to be on. When Billy and Butch were taken from us, that’s really when I was headed out the door in Jackson. He was unlike any other writer we had, and should be remembered for that uniqueness. He and Orley gone in a year. I’m feeling very frail this morning.

  4. So very sorry to hear of Butch’s passing. As a lowly intern and then a cub reporter at the Jackson Daily News, I was a bit in awe of the sports staff The CL and JDN had and particularly Butch, Orley Hood, Billy Watkins, Rusty Hampton, Rick and Bobby Cleveland. Stayed in awe as I progressed. Butch was a fascinating guy to say the least. Ornery, but in a curmudgeonly way.

    I can say my journalism career was definitely for the better getting to work with Butch. My thoughts and prayers to family and friends.

  5. I remember Butch not just as a writer I tried so hard to emulate, but as one of the most loyal people I have ever met. I appreciated so much how he shared his talents with me by having newsroom conversations about investigative pieces he was working on and why they mattered. I loved how he loved and supported Jana. Butch has a special place in my heart and is a treasure in the history of the CL and JDN.

  6. More than an excellent journalist, Butch was a wonderful person. I’m reminded of a line from a Bob Marley song which I’m sure Butch would appreciate: “Good friends we have, good friends we’ve lost, along the way….”

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