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Farewell to a friend

by on July 12, 2012 11:50 AM

It's never easy writing a column when someone passes away.

As writers, we do it to pay tribute to someone close to us or someone who did a lot for the community.

Jim Butler was a friend, a colleague and a great all-around guy. When I got a text message from a former colleague informing me that Butler had died late last week, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I first met Jim when I was the sports editor at The Progress in Clearfield. Jim loved wrestling and I didn't, so we were a perfect match.

“Write as much as you want,” I'd tell him. And he did.

Keep in mind that this was well before email, so Jim wrote his “Matside” column on legal pads and someone in the office would type his stories in. Oftentimes, it was me. It was a long, involved process, but the columns were well-written and well-received, so Jim would write them and we'd run them. He didn't get paid a whole lot, but he didn't seem to care. He also took photos — wonderful photos — to accompany his wrestling stories.

I would secretly dread the end of wrestling season because I knew that meant the end of “Matside” and the photos that accompanied it. Then, one day, Jim approached me about shooting “other” sports.

Knowing how good he was with the camera, I immediately took him up on his offer. Before long, he was shooting baseball, softball, track and field and tennis. In the fall, he'd shoot high school football games on Friday night and then come back into the office to drop off his film. Yes, we used film way back then.

He'd stay into the wee hours of the morning, chatting about the games and scribbling down information for the photo captions.

Jim knew he wasn't going to get rich shooting high school sports. Again, he didn't care. He did it because he loved to do it. He did it for the sports staff that was trying to get a good product out on the streets every single day. He did it for the kids who would beam when they saw their pictures in that day's paper. I've often wondered how many proud parents have a newspaper clipping with one of Jim's photos hanging on their fridge. When I first got into journalism, I used to save every single article I wrote. I can't tell you how many of those had a Jim Butler photo next to the text. My stories were instantly better because of his photos, I can assure you.

Jim didn't work or reside in Centre County, but he was well-known, especially in the wrestling community.

His resume was impressive, to say the least.

He was the 1976 Wrestling USA Magazine Hall of Fame Sportswriter of the Year. He was also the 1980 Wrestling News Magazine Writer of the Year. In 1984, he won the Amateur Wrestling News Dillinger Award and was the District 6 Man of the Year. In 1991, he was named the Amateur Wrestling News National Wrestling Photographer of the Year and the National Wrestling Media Association Photographer of the Year in 1995.

He was inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame and District 9 Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999. He was inducted into the District 6 Hall of Fame in 2003.

But Jim would be the first to tell you that the awards and accolades didn't mean much. He didn't do the things he did to have a bunch of plaques hanging on his wall. He covered wrestling because he loved the sport. He took photos because he loved promoting high school sports and local athletes.

He never took a day off.

Well, maybe one time he did.

I was working in the sports department one evening when I got a call from Jim saying he couldn't shoot an event he was scheduled to. It was unlike him, so I asked why. He explained that while he was getting his hair colored, the stylist had burned his scalp with the dye. He was in too much pain to leave the house. The entire sports staff teased him about that one.

The last time I saw Jim was at the PIAA softball playoffs at Penn State last month. He was perched on a ladder in foul territory, taking photos of the Philipsburg-Osceola game.

Jim was admitted to Mount Nittany Medical Center due to complications from knee replacement surgery. He suffered a heart attack and died on July 6. He was 65.

Jim Butler was more than just a good person. He was a great one.

He will be missed more than words can say.

Chris Morelli is the managing editor of The Centre County Gazette.
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