Julian Butler

Note, added May 17th:

I’ve been getting a number of visitors to this post who knew Julian and are searching for information on his death. I want to put a brief disclaimer: I am proud to have been a friend of Julian’s, and I was devastated to hear of his death. However, I knew him for less than two years, and can only record my own, limited, personal impressions of a man who lived a long, full, and colourful life. This is a personal blog, generally read only by my close friends and family; I did not intend to write a eulogy encompassing everything that Julian was. Some of his friends have been gracious enough to leave their comments, expanding upon what I have written and bringing their own memories of a wonderful man and a great spirit. Please read their comments and add your own, if you feel so moved.

On April 28th, my friend Julian Butler died of heart failure.Me, Alex, and Julian Butler at the Gat in GhanziMe, Alex, and Julian at the Gat in Ghanzi, on my birthday in 2010.

I met Julian very soon after arriving in Botswana. I was still reeling from my arrival in D’Kar, and had just met the tiny expat/Peace Corps crowd in the village. It was Sunshine’s birthday and – still jetlagged – I tagged along for a long, dark, confusing night of birthday partying. Our first stop was the Thakadu bar. “Julian wants us to come,” Sunshine said. “Birthdaayyy!”

As we bumped along the rutted bush track in her faithful Toyota Tazz, CV offered this advice: “Don’t worry about Julian – he can be a perv, but he’s really the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”

Over the two years I knew Julian, I constantly heard variations on that refrain. “Yeah, I know he seems like a dirty old man, but he’ll be your most loyal friend.” “Can be creepy, but he’d always be there for you.” “OK, he likes the ladies, but he’s always willing to help out.” And so on. It was true. I really didn’t like Butler at first, because despite the warnings, he came off as a dirty old man. I mean, that’s true too. He was a paunchy, hard-drinking, chain-smoking dirty old man who ogled every woman who walked past and could have a serious case of octopus arms. It’s entirely possible that he pushed many women way past their comfort zones. He was a wealthy white businessman and he sometimes pushed his advantages.

But he was also one of my most dependable friends. He could always be counted on to be helpful, generous, kind. I called him countless times for help with such varied things as organizing birthday parties, a can of petrol (to get back home, when there were fuel shortages in Ghanzi), business arrangements, advice on where to buy bricks, and a couch to crash on. He always came through. He did this for everyone he was friends with, and he did it with a smile on his face. He helped out simply for the reward of facilitating a good time, for making his friends happy. Very few people can honestly rejoice in their friends’ victories or happinesses; Julian did.

I drank far too much whiskey with Julian on long nights at the Kalahari Arms, whiling away the hours with him and Nelson and whoever else happened to be along for the ride that night… I also ate cheese-and-tomato toasties for lunch with him, chatting about work and idle gossip.

He was a Ghanzi character. People loved to hate him. He was of English origin, and didn’t quite fit in with the Afrikaans crowd in Ghanzi. Like pretty much every privileged white person in Africa, he could be racist, but he was one of the only white people I knew who would come to a party in D’Kar. He could make me very uncomfortable, but he could also be a perfect gentleman. He would use his wealth carelessly, throwing big braais with piles of meat and giant iceboxes full of beer; but at the end of the night, he would load up the back of his truck himself, collecting the last few cans and shutting the tailgate behind his enormous, slobbery dog Rex.

I had lunch with Julian on the second-to-last day I was in Botswana. “We’ll be seeing you around here again, I expect,” he said, grinning. He tossed down 50 pula to pay for our meal and scooped up his car keys. We said goodbye at the bus stop. I didn’t think it would be the last time.

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5 responses to “Julian Butler

  1. Very sad. I knew Julian when I was a teacher at Itekeng Middle School from 1984-86……. seems like a lifetime ago! Julian taught me (and others) to play Bridge, and we spent countless weekends playing Bridge for 4, 6, 8 hours at a stretch. He was always there to help with whatever was needed. Julian (along with John Hardbattle, another man who died too young) organized a weekend camping trip in the bush in 1985 to view Halley’s Comet. What a weekend! Say what you will about the drinking, smoking and “perving,” Julian died too young. He will be missed.

    • Sorry Kathy I disagree with you. Neither Julian nor John died too young, they would not have been very good at growing old. They both died quickly after a brief illness at a time when they where shining. Both lived and died without regret and had the best life possible. I believe it is how they would have chosen to go. And people will remember them at their peak. It is impossible to think of Julian and John as old men, sitting waiting to die.
      Both Julian and John are irreplaceable, certainly in my life, and certainly in the Ghanzi community.

  2. Stephanie Funk

    While this article touches on the some of Julian’s qualities, there is so much more to say about him. He certainly had his wild side, but it is really missing the point to think that was all he was about. He had a whole other side to his personality that was simply remarkable.

    First, he had some of the best insights into people and politics of anyone I have ever met and he had this unique, funny and interesting way of phrasing those insights. He combined that with a laser precision that took you right to the heart of the matter and always left you wanting to hear more.

    Second, he was a great teacher and would spend hours explaining all sides of an argument and then wrap it up with his liberal twist on how it should really be. He had been an active anti-apartheid advocate in South Africa and believed strongly in its abolishment. If I had to point to one person, outside of my family, that taught me the most about life and love and the continent, it would be Julian, and 20 years later, I’m still here.

    Third, the reference to Julian being generous is absolutely on the money. He was always doing things for other people, especially if he thought they were the underdog and needed someone to stand up for them. He did it quietly, but he did it so often and for so many that he was infamous for it. He had his own moral compass of right and wrong, and however unconventional it was, that compass guided him in all his interactions. That is part of what made him so fiercely loyal to everyone he called a friend, and particularly to his family and those closest to him.

    Fourth, Julian gave himself to the Ghanzi community completely. It was the perfect place for him to implement the 9,000 ideas he had streaming through his head a minute. It was also the best place for him to find a soft landing when things went wrong on the business front. Julian went through years of financial difficulty, and was not immune from the hardships of life. In the late 90s he declared bankruptcy (while other construction contractors in his position didn’t do it and got away with it, Julian filed because he said that was the rule and the rules had to be followed) and there were years where he struggled to make ends meet. The fact that he could turn around those difficult years says everything about his determination and stubbornness to overcome obstacles and find solutions. He was a natural leader and natural businessman and he used that as a springboard to be an active member of the community. He really believed that the purpose of life was to participate, and that is what made him larger than life — because he embraced it so fully.

    The Ghanzi community is organizing the service/send off for him this weekend. I’m sure it will be a complete blow out and that’s exactly what he would have wanted.

    For those who are there and those who aren’t, there is simply no disputing that he made his mark.

  3. I knew Julian years and years ago..he was my first love way way back in the seventies. Heard of his death through a friend of a friend and through my brother found this site. I remember a young boy so full of dreams and ideals ..so different from the others… I lost touch with him 30 years ago, but I have always remembered him and have always felt priviliged and happy to have known him.

  4. Alyson (Gal) Allen

    I met Julian when I was a teacher in Kang my first year in Peace Corps, in 1984. We got together in what I am sure was typical Julian fashion, seducing one another after an evening of drinking and eating, mostly drinking, in the living room of my house. We were together after that for several years. I got a transfer to Ghanzi, we lived together, I knew Kingsley and John Hardbattle and Julian’s mother and sister and brother in South Africa. We were even engaged for awhile. He came to Cambridge and New York to visit me. Years later, I looked for him. We had one email exchange, and then a few months later I heard he was dead. What a shock, but I guess not such a surprise. It sounds from the comments that he continued to live as I knew him — consuming whiskey and women and cigarettes at a ferocious pace, and being a good and generous friend. I always held a torch for him. Never forgot him. The dramas, the many many dinners and Sunday brunches with lots of people, the conversations, the nights sleeping out in the bush, and – yes, the pervy sexual appetite. Such a voracious consumer of life. He made everyone around him live more intensely and passionately too. Thanks for having a place where I can put a small part of my memories.

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