On the last day Mike Butler led the Hutton Settlement Children’s Home, the residents and staff at the historic facility had the grand idea of making sure Butler wasn’t really retiring at all.
They presented Butler, who’s led the children’s home for 25 years, with a list of volunteer activities at the end of the night – excuses for him to come back and visit. Butler went to each of the Hutton Settlement’s four cottages, sharing drinks, appetizers, salad and dinner with the 25 children who live there.
“The idea is, he’s not really retiring at all,” said Chud Wendle, Butler’s successor.
Always the good sport, Butler played along. As he went into each cottage, it was like meeting family for the holidays – not a somber farewell tour.
Some kids greeted Butler at the door before leading him and a group of staff into their home. Others, such as 12-year-old Roxy, were quiet, but would still rather stand next to Butler than be anywhere else.
“So are you tired or are you just bashful?” Butler asked Roxy, who bit into her sweatshirt and murmured a few one-word answers.
Butler told the girl, “Sometimes, I lay awake at night, thinking about things. Is that what you do?”
No matter: Ever since he was young, Butler knew he wanted to work with children. And he was good at it.
Like Levi Hutton before him, who grew up as an orphan and founded the Hutton Settlement Children’s Home in 1919, Butler, too, was drawn to the unique challenge of working with kids, especially the most challenging ones.
Out of college, he got a job as the director of a boys’ ranch located in the shadow of Mount St. Helens in Castle Rock, Washington. For years, he taught them how to build character and even helped them earn a high school diploma. When the ranch was destroyed under mountains of ash when the nearby mountain blew its top in 1980, he helped rebuild that, too.
By 1988, word had spread of his business-like attitude, yet soft demeanor around children. A search committee asked him to come to Spokane to interview for a job managing the children’s homes and operations at the Hutton Settlement.
When he arrived, he was taken around campus by a group of kids who showed him the large, brick “cottages” and the hundreds of acres of land. As he was being led around, he was reminded of his mother, who used to look after children in their Longview home when their parents couldn’t.
That was when he knew he was made for this line of work.
“I was raised to have a desire to do something more than carry a lunch bucket to one of the mills and do factory work,” Butler said. “I wanted something more meaningful than just turning a paycheck.”
Fortunately, he was able to do just that – and he even earned a paycheck while he was at it.
For 25 years, he’s served as the executive director of the Hutton Settlement, a children’s home for kids who have gone through failed adoptions, or who have faced trauma in their lives and have already been placed in the foster system.
It can be either a short-term or long-term placement, and it’s open for children ages 5 to 18. Some have been there for more than seven years, others for just a few months, but many of them stay until they’ve graduated high school.
As director, Butler was in charge of many things, but perhaps the most important was balancing the budget, a large portion of which comes from real estate endowments. The Settlement receives no funding from the federal government, a mark of pride among the staff, and doesn’t require families to pay the $200-a-month rent if they can’t afford it.
The large, brick buildings were all built in 1919, when Levi Hutton founded it originally as an orphanage.
Timothy, a 17-year-old track star who preferred to play Beethoven songs on the piano while Butler and company ate salad in the dining room, said it reminded him of a certain fictional castle.
“The first time I came here it was really rainy and gloomy,” he said. “I thought I was coming to Hogwarts.”
As Monday evening – coincidentally, also Butler’s 66th birthday – started to wind down, so too did his tenure as director, his bittersweet retirement looming. It was time to pass the baton to the next director, as Levi Hutton did in 1928, and as Butler’s predecessor, Bob Revel, did in 1994.
“It hits you when you’re faced with your list of lasts: This morning was the last Monday. The board meeting I had last was the last board meeting,” Butler said. “Though it is somewhat of a relief to understand that you don’t have it all on your shoulders any longer.”
But first, Daniel, who just got a job at McDonald’s so he can save up to visit Norway once he graduates from high school, can’t wait to show Butler the cool new movie theater he and his live-in house parents made. It has a slick high-definition projector and three rows of recliners.
“Some of them are falling apart, sadly,” the excited 16-year-old said. Now that it’s complete, the seven boys in Cottage 4 can play video games, cheer for the Seahawks on Sundays, and hear every sound in movies with their new surround-sound system.
“Are you going to watch ‘Star Wars?’ ” Butler asked Daniel. “Well, did you know that when ‘Star Wars’ first came out it was shown in only one theater in Spokane? And that theater was owned by the Hutton Settlement?”
Daniel, who’s lived at Hutton Settlement for almost five years, had no qualms about sharing his love for his house parents, housemates and Butler.
He said he looks up to Butler and respects him, but he also wishes he’d seen him more, despite Butler coming around to each cottage at least once a week. Now that the executive director might be back to shovel snow in the future, Daniel may get his wish.
“It’s just sad that he’s going,” the teenager said.
Timothy, who lives in Cottage 3, agrees.
“He’s really inspirational,” he said. “They’re all really the closest thing to family that I have right now.”