How a Christian business tycoon used his depression to help tens of thousands

Source: The Washington Post

By Patton Dodd

In the early 1960s, Howard E. Butt Jr. was both a prominent Texas business executive and a rising star in Christian preaching. On weekdays, he crisscrossed Texas helping to expand H-E-B, the booming family grocery business. On weekends, he traveled to distant U.S. cities as a preacher on the church revival circuit, appearing alongside his friend, the famed evangelist Billy Graham. He had a loving wife and three doting children. He possessed talent, charm, wit and limitless opportunity.

But in retrospect, the most important quality Howard E. Butt Jr. had was a touch of self-awareness. He knew the truth about himself: that he was beset, as he put it, by “all kinds of anxieties and fears.” Butt suffered from a deep and persistent depression. And he knew he needed professional help.

“I couldn’t tell anybody,” he later wrote. “In Baptist or evangelical circles, you didn’t flaunt your relationship with a psychiatrist; you hid it.”

If the stigma of mental illness has changed since the 1960s, that change has been slow and remains incomplete. Butt was a man ahead of his time by half a century and counting. He called out depression as a nameable illness, a shareable struggle, an affliction common to the best of us, capable of touching any one of us. He spent the rest of his life telling his story and creating a setting for others to do the same, and so began to find healing.

When Butt passed away in his San Antonio home on Sunday evening at the age of 89, the state of Texas took notice. H-E-B is now one of the state’s most beloved success stories; the grocery store founded by Butt’s grandmother in 1905 grew into a food-and-drug empire that encompasses most of Texas and northern Mexico. Texans love to love the things they love about their state, and the H-E-B stores are no exception. Ask a former Texan what they miss most about the state, and chances are their list will start with H-E-B.

As the modern history of Texas is written, Butt will figure prominently not in the history of business so much as the history of religion. For Christians of a certain set, he is associated with another brand: Laity Lodge, a spiritual retreat center nestled in the Frio River Canyon, a spectacular stretch of property deep in the Texas Hill Country. Butt founded Laity Lodge in 1961, and it remains a cherished destination for thousands of people.

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