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The Lessons of Butch

A tiny, affluent Vermont liberal arts college embraces its biggest fan, and the students get an education in humanity like none other.

When Butch Varno goes to a Middlebury College game, or just needs to get around, he can always catch a lift from students – in this case, football players Jeff Clarke (left) and Brian Barron.
When Butch Varno goes to a Middlebury College game, or just needs to get around, he can always catch a lift from students – in this case, football players Jeff Clarke (left) and Brian Barron. (Photo by Andy Duback)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joseph Healy
November 11, 2007

Lasting relationships can begin in an instant. Planets align and people meet and, after a glance or a few words, you can extrapolate 40-some years down the line and, behold, you know you'll still be talking and meeting and helping each other.

In the case of Richard "Butch" Varno, that instant came in 1961, when a football player at Middlebury College in Vermont named Roger Ralph asked Butch and his grandmother if they needed a ride. It was snowing, and they had just been to the Middlebury football game. Butch, who has cerebral palsy, was snowplowing along in his wheelchair when Roger helped the pair into his car and drove them home. It would be the beginning of a most remarkable friendship - between Butch and the Middlebury community.

Students at the tiny liberal arts school have been driving Butch, who is now 60, to and from games ever since. During football season, basketball players - typically 18-year-old freshmen - pick Butch up. During basketball season, the freshmen football players take over. For 46 years, the students have made it a priority to get Butch to every home game. They call it, simply, "picking up Butch."

At first, this was nothing more than a sweet local story about a fan, a college, and the kindness of strangers. But that changed when Rick Reilly, the back-page columnist for Sports Illustrated, told the story of Butch and the Middlebury tradition in 2003. That same year, ESPN did a SportsCenter segment on Butch that won an Emmy. Suddenly, Butch was a celebrity. And the Middlebury students were learning lessons that no college professor could ever teach them.

As the story grew, the relationship between Butch and the Middlebury community evolved. In 2003, Sara Smith, a junior and a member of the track-and-field team, helped Butch earn his GED at age 56. Non-athletes got to know Butch, too, taking him for walks around town or to the college's cafeteria, where Butch still pontificates on everything from the Red Sox to politics. In his chair, his 5-foot 3-inch frame seems even more compact, but he's animated and his voice is booming and declarative, though his words are a bit slurred due to the physical challenges of cerebral palsy. He is not shy about anything, including his disease. "It stinks," he says simply.

Celia Rothschild, a sophomore from Wilmette, Illinois, who is studying art history, visits and reads to Butch or simply listens as he shares the news of the day. "He's a lot of fun to be around," she says. Will Englis, a junior from Minneapolis who is studying neuroscience, says: "I started [picking up Butch] freshman year. A cross-country teammate of mine got me involved, and I've been doing it ever since. We'd go to his house and kind of stretch [Butch] out, to get his physical activity up. I started going by myself and doing some reading with him. Then we started going into town more, and we'd go to the cafeteria to see all the students and stuff. We'd have cafeteria conversations - about 10 kids around the table telling Butch stories."

And there are plenty to tell. When asked about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's bid for the White House, Butch says, "I don't know; I'm not a Republican. I'm a liberal Democrat. I'll tell you what - it's up for grabs. The only thing I know is I'll vote for a Democrat." (He cops to favoring Barack Obama.)

"He does spend a lot of time watching television," says former Middlebury basketball coach and athletic director Russ Reilly, "so he knows a lot about current events and what goes on in the world."

Years ago, Reilly seated Butch among the players during home basketball games. "I needed a friend on the bench," he says. Today, the current basketball coach, Jeff Brown, does the same, and even lets Butch occasionally say a few inspirational words to the team before a game. Reilly points out that at a school like Middlebury, where many of the students come from privileged backgrounds, meeting Butch is a grounding experience.

Last spring, the relationship between Butch and Middlebury deepened further when March floodwaters trashed the apartment Butch shares with his 77-year-old mother, Helen. Hours after the flood, Brown arrived with Bobby Ritter, the football coach, to help salvage Helen and Butch's belongings. But mother and son still needed a place to live, somewhere that was wheelchair-accessible. They spent a few days in a motel before the college's Alliance for Civic Engagement stepped in with help from a local social-services group and the Middlebury Congregational Church.

Next came the Butch Varno Initiative. The college was given an old house near campus. They came up with half of the $400,000 needed for renovations, including a handicapped-accessible apartment for Butch and Helen, and the cost of home care. The college is also endowing a Community Response Fund, monies from which will eventually be used, in Butch's name, to help others in need in the Middlebury community.

The apartment was designed specifically for Butch. The ramps help with accessibility issues, but since cerebral palsy hinders body movement and coordination, Butch needs help with mobility, too. "As Butch has lost elasticity in his body, it now requires two people to move him. We're putting in ceiling tracking to help get Butch from his bed to his wheelchair and to the bathroom," says Tiffany Sargent of Middlebury's Alliance for Civic Engagement.

Butch and Helen just moved in and will call this apartment home for as long as they need to. Soon, a new paved walkway will connect the door of the apartment to the path to the athletic complex. Butch will continue to be at Middlebury games, only now students won't have to pick him up; they'll just push him.

Joseph Healy is editor-in-chief of Vermont Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

To contribute to the Butch Varno Initiative, go to https://www.middlebury.edu/forms/alumni/giving_form.php. In the "specific request" form, enter "Butch."

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