A week or so ago, while watching the Indianapolis 500, I thought a lot about George Souders. George raced in the Indy 500 only twice, winning the race on his first attempt and finishing third the next year. Surprisingly, he never raced at Indy again, which seems almost unfathomable given such dominance. Granted, the year was 1927, and the race had not attracted the prestige it would many years later, but such a rate of success rate would normally call for George to be listed among the great stories of the Brickyard. Alas, few have heard of George. He particularly resonates with me, partly because he was born in Lafayette, Indiana, my old hometown (he’s buried in the Battle Ground cemetery, not too far from where my parents live today). There is another reason, too.
Upon reading this, my sister will ask, as she often does, “why do you know this?” (Incidentally, she is the inspiration for that tag on many of my posts). This time I have an answer.
In 1989, as a skinny little awkward freshman in high school (I’ve matured so much since that now I’m just plain awkward), I walked into class to the sound of the booming voice of Mr. Bob Butz. Mr. Butz, at that time, was beginning what would be a 20-year teaching “career” at my high school. I put career in quotation marks because he had already had many careers (he was 68 at the time), in fields such as theater, teaching, music, energy, and construction. He was volunteering to teach theology and etymology and our high school, but they may as well have called the courses he would teach us “Life.”
With a booming baritone voice that thundered in stark contrast to his short, stocky, frame, there was nothing reserved about Mr. Butz. When he spoke, he commanded attention, and you gave him every bit of it; you never knew when he might segue suddenly from his smooth deep voice into powerfully delivered song, just to make a point, often doing so while raising his hand triumphantly. I’ll never forget that the word gamut (as in, “it runs the gamut”) comes from the musical scale – the Latin words for the notes started at “gamma” and ended at “ut,” and Mr. Butz sang them all in deep, pulsating bass to drive the lesson home.
Perhaps the most memorable moment I had with Mr. Butz occurred during my junior year. Mr. Butz had asked me to take part in the “Spell Bowl” for our school; he was the “coach” for the team. Unlike the Scripps Howard spelling bee (which was on television recently, again calling Mr. Butz to mind), in this competition each team member would be asked to come up on stage and take a written spelling test, consisting of ten words to be spoken in turn by the moderator. A judge sat next to each student. When all ten words were written, the moderator would go back through and recite the correct spelling. The judge sitting next to each contestant would raise his or her hand to signify that the spelling was correct, and the teams seated in the audience would cheer (or not). The first word on my list was grammar, which I misspelled. It bears mentioning that I spelled the other nine words correctly, getting the highest individual score on our team for the competition. I will let you decide which of these two facts Mr. Butz remembers…to this day. Every time I see him, or my family sees him, and he asks how I am doing, he always recounts that I misspelled grammar (I went with an “e” instead of an “a”) and thunders his deep, reverberating laugh. It made me laugh then, and it makes me smile now.
Mr. Butz retired this year, at the age of 88. I can tell you that while he deserves the break, there is a generation of kids that will miss out on the rich experiences he shared with all of us. We drank deeply from his stories, because he had lived four lifetimes in one. One of those stories was about George Souders. Mr. Butz recalled to our class his memory as a 6-year old, standing with his family out on US Highway 52, the road that led from Lafayette to Indianapolis, and welcoming “ol’ George Souders” back from his victory at the 500. To hear Mr. Butz tell the story, George went down to Indy, entered the race, won it, and came home. Simple. Such greatness hidden within simplicity must have seemed second-hand to Mr. Butz because that’s exactly who he is. Everything he did, every impact he made, whether it be through his involvement in the local theater, in the class room, in the lives of those who lived to hear his stories, or the booming bass when he would spontaneously burst into song, was big. He has shown us all how to live a big life in our own small part of the world.