Obituary: Jim Butz, of the Greatest Generation, Leahy’s Lads and golf

Long-time FWAA member James T. Butz, 90, passed away peacefully on Oct. 12, 2014. According to FWAA Membership records, James had been a member of the organization since October 1948, or 66 years.

The family is planning a memorial mass on Nov. 24 in the basilica on the campus of Notre Dame followed by interment at Cedar Grove Cemetery (also on campus), then a reception at the Morris Inn.

The following is a narrative one of his sons, Jimmy Butz, also an FWAA member, wrote:

James Butz

James Butz

Jim drove himself to get into a position to attend Notre Dame by graduating atop his high school class as valedictorian, president of his class both junior and senior years, president of the student council, editor of the yearbook, sports editor of the newspaper, president of the dramatic club and head manager of the football and basketball teams.

But World War II intervened and he was drafted after graduation from Kenmore High in Akron at 18 years old, all of 5 foot 4 inches tall and 115 pounds.

He served three years as a combat infantryman in the 75th Division, becoming one of the uncommon few who survived both the D-Day landing as well as the Battle of Bulge, where he and his mates were trapped behind enemy lines in Wye, Belgium, in an unheated house when their position was overrun by the German advance. Wounded twice, he earned the Bronze Star and was subsequently knighted in 2013 by the French government for his actions in the Battle of Northern France.  But his most prized military memento was his common Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a rifleman’s symbol of his status as the equal of the biggest man in his outfit.

“He had a great sense of loyalty, whether it is to his country, his family or his work,” said Jim’s younger brother, Jerry Butz, of Roselle, Ill. “I was 13 years younger than him and I never once heard him speak over what a hero he was. That wasn’t in his nature.”

But his biggest battle was just beginning. Throughout his military duty he continued to write to Notre Dame’s Dean of Admissions expressing his interest in attending if he survived the war, and this built a voluminous file.  He was rejected on the basis that other veterans who were previously established students were returning to campus to continue their studies and had priority over him. 

Then Coach Frank Leahy recruited future Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart as a new freshman. On that basis, Jim implemented a full court press on Notre Dame by influential friends.  The matter went up to the president’s office for a decision.  After reviewing the file, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Cavanaugh, asked how many beds they were short?  Told of Notre Dame’s over-commitment, he advised that they would now be short one more bed because, “If Fr. Sorin didn’t create this university for students like him, then why did he create it?”

Jim made the most of his opportunity. He was hired by the Sports Information Department before he was accepted as a student and, while keeping a low profile until his formal acceptance, quickly became Coach Leahy’s media relations adjutant during Notre Dame’s three undefeated championship years.

In publicizing Coach Leahy and the national championship teams, his new friends, for post-season honors, Mr. Butz was truly one of “Leahy’s Lads” and stayed in lifelong touch with them. He never saw Notre Dame lose a game on his watch. 

“I think it is true that Jim has one blue and one gold eye,” said former Notre Dame Sports Information Director Roger Valdiserri on the occasion of an industry award for Jim. “He lives and dies Notre Dame.”

Cavanaugh’s faith was justified three years later when Mr. Butz graduated Cum Laude in 1949 while also putting in sixty hour weeks in the Sports Information Department to support his new wife and daughter. This was the start of a lifelong relationship with Notre Dame, sports in general and golf in particular.

Jim’s sports career started in public relations with Wilson Sporting Goods and MacGregor before eventually serving as executive officer in several equipment manufacturers before moving on to the PGA of America.   Jim’s 53-year career in golf is a compendium of building invaluable relationships with manufacturers, PGA Professionals, Tour professionals and media.  As a result, he became one of the golf industry’s most respected contributors.

“Jim was a rarity in having been able to work on both sides of the fence in the golf industry – both in sales and administration with the PGA,” said Joe Phillips, former vice president for golf with Wilson Sporting Goods. “I can’t remember being around anyone more involved than Jim.  He was my mentor.”

Whenever a Wilson Advisory Staff member in any sport was asked to write an instruction book or piece, Jim was there to assist and polish. Golf’s Sam Snead, Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen worked with Jim, as did baseball’s Ted Williams and Bob Feller, tennis greats Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs and Tony Trabert; billiards’ Willie Mosconi and football’s Otto Graham, Sid Luckman, Johnny Lujack, Paul Christman and countless others.

He would spend his winter Saturdays writing instructional columns for Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead, which ran in national syndication during the summer. His summer Saturdays were spent ghost writing columns for the Professional Bowling Association’s champion Joe Wilman, which ran during the winter months.

Working with Toney Penna he learned golf club design, eventually designing clubs of his own, including the Ryder Cup II while president of Tommy Armour Golf, one of the industry’s first cavity-back perimeter-weighted clubs.

His countless contributions were recognized in 2001 when his industry’s peers voted him their Ernie Saybarac Award as an acknowledgement of his lifetime effort in growing the game of golf.

But corporate success never overshadowed his love of Notre Dame, “What God had in mind when college campuses were invented”, he liked to say. He never failed to arrange his schedule such that he was in the press box for every home game.

One incidental legacy of his commitment to Notre Dame came when the University wanted to replace the Irish terrier, “Clashmore Mike”, which was their mascot. Jim arranged for his illustrator from Wilson to create a memorable leprechaun logo which, with minor alterations, is still used by the university today.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be offered to Honor Flight (www.honorflightchicago.org), which brings the dwindling members of the Greatest Generation to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the memorials.

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