His name was well known and even more so his initials, bequeathed from his entrepreneurial father. The family’s highly successful grocery business put H.E.B. on the map in Texas and beyond. Often loyal customers refer to the closest of their stores as “my H-E-B.”
Howard E. Butt Jr., who died Sept. 11 at age 89 at his home in San Antonio, was best known as an exemplary Christian layperson who was kind, generous and inspiring. He called for living in faithful, hopeful and productive ways that balanced meaningful work and needed restoration.
My friendship with Howard began in 2001 when asked to research and write a portion of Bruce McIver’s book, Riding the Wind of God, about the postwar student revival movement that began at Baylor University and swept eastward.
Howard and other students of the time, including Charles Wellborn, Ralph Langley, Frank Boggs and Jack Robinson, traveled widely — returning to some cities repeatedly — to bring messages of hope to the young people who filled auditoriums, tents and other venues for their well-planned revival services.
One evening, after digging through numerous newspapers and magazines in Nashville and Chattanooga, as part of my research on the movement, I called my mother just to chat and apologize for not having time for a visit. I mentioned the subject of my research.
“Did you say Howard Butt, who used to lead those youth revivals?” she asked. “Your daddy and I had our first date when we went to hear him preach.”
That was personal history I’d never known. She added that the particular youth revival service they had attended was at East Side Junior High School in Chattanooga, her alma mater. It was a piece of research I’d been seeking.
After a few years Howard’s lay revivals seamlessly flowed from the youth movement — continuing his outreach and effective ministry. Through each stage of life, Howard was attune to his calling of pointing others toward theirs — including his nationally-broadcast radio program, launched in 2000, called The High Calling of Our Daily Life.
So God only knows the positive impact Howard made on the lives of so many others. He treated people in attentive, respectful ways that drew them to his goodness and to the source of his deeply held faith.
In my first phone conversation with Howard, I asked how he and the other young leaders handled all the attention that came from speaking to such large, attentive crowds and having their faces grace the front pages of daily newspapers in major cities across the southeast.
“We didn’t,” he said with surprising honesty. “That’s why I had to go into therapy…”
Such vulnerability, infused with hopefulness, has far greater benefits than any hyper-spiritual masking.
Visiting Howard and Barbara Dan at Laity Lodge, the ecumenical Christian retreat center in the Texas Hill Country, was a treat I’ll long remember for many reasons. First, it was a wonderful story rooted in Howard’s family history that I was eager to capture in a news journal feature.
Second, my understanding of the word “retreat” was enhanced by the quietness and the quality of the weekend experience. Teaching sessions were always followed by testimonies in which a businessperson would bring practical application to the lesson at hand. Applied knowledge is the best kind.
Also, there were shared casual conversations and ample time for reflection, while drinking H-E-B coffee (San Antonio blend) and watching the well-named Frio River flow.
Third and finally, there was Howard himself — there to graciously probe with well-formed, thoughtful questions and attentive listening. His affirmation was genuine and motivating. Being around Howard made me want to do more and do it better.
Countless lives are better because of this one good man. My prayers today are for Barbara Dan and other family who mourn his loss. Thank God for Howard Butt Jr.
[For more on Howard’s life, read this article from Baptist Standard.]