Steve Buttry lived a wonderful life and he lived a great death

Steve Buttry lived a fascinating life. His death a few weeks ago was tragic and sad as all deaths are, especially to the family who loved him, and to the many people who called him friend. His death was also intriguing, instructive and  provocative. Provocative, because I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death.

Steve and I considered each other dear friends even though we were actually together less than a dozen times. Our friendship was fueled by the digital age. We grew close through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Our bond became strong.

I deeply respected Steve’s determined efforts to move the stodgy newspaper industry into the 21st Century. He was outspoken when he needed to be. To my delight he tilted at more than a few windmills and he passionately cared for journalism. He did all that with unerring kindness, concern and attention to people’s feelings and emotions.

To be candid, I was lucky that Steve said nice things about me and my book in his compelling blog and in private forums. Steve and I had a comfortable mutual admiration society.

You don’t have to take my word about Steve’s successes and his impact. This salute from a student editor is heartwarming. Wonderful tributes are  here, here and here. And this incredible collection of salutes should tell you everything you need to know about Steve and his professional and human contributions.

Assuming I have established how well Steve lived an extraordinary life, let me travel the road less traveled (Steve would expect nothing less of me) and talk about what I find the intriguing and instructive part.

Steve was a deep believer in transparency before he got sick so it was unsurprising that when he faced his third bout with cancer he discussed it openly on Caring Bridge, Facebook and on his excellent blog. Steve especially impressed me with his constant gratitude for his life, his loves, his experiences and his friends. He eloquently wrote about all the gifts he received since he survived his first two cancers. His omnipresent optimism also fueled that particular blog.

The striking thing about Steve’s path to his death was his amazing commitment to his relationships. His devoted, funny and strong wife Mimi could never have doubted Steve’s love, and her love for him shone like a guiding star.

Last August, Steve and I shared breakfast at a suburban hotel outside Minneapolis. We both knew his path was growing short and I brought the relatively fresh scars of my late wife’s death to the table. We both shot straight and hid nothing. Before Mimi joined us, Steve told me he was spending a great deal of time writing letters to his three sons and Mimi. These were not dashed-off letters. They were comprehensive stories about the family, his interaction with each of them and reflections on his deep love for each of them.

Steve did the same for his friends with far greater brevity. A few weeks ago I received a delightful two paragraph letter from Steve thanking me for being his friend. Apparently several other friends received similar notes. My note thanked me for what I had done for him, wished we had known each other better and concluded with some nice compliments.

Now to the provocative part. Here is how Steve began that note. “I’d rather die suddenly, but a slow death does let you leave with less unsaid, so I am writing letters to some friends.” I responded with this:

Thank you for your brilliant and kind letter. Writing these took guts.

I was a little surprised that you said you would prefer to die suddenly. From afar it seems to me you are LIVING a perfect death.

Colleagues and friends have been able to honor you in several different ways. You had a wonderful opportunity to share with and embrace your family and your devoted wife.

I think I have told you that the greatest thing my Dad ever taught me was how to die. Well, friend you are my new model. Your transparency, your courage and your integrity are fantastic examples for all of us.

Now that gentle Steve has passed there is a small tinge of regret for telling him how he ought to feel, but it is a small tinge.

As I said in the first paragraph, I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death. I wanted him to realize that, in my view, he accomplished so much with that death.

Steve has left us with three instructive lessons.

He fashioned a model of strength that any and all of us should strive to follow. His courage, his candor, his attention to to others and his selflessness set a standard that I pray I can match when the time comes.

He allowed people to honor him. LSU’s Manship school honored him with a scholarship in his name, and he was awarded a Chairman’s Citation from the National Press Foundation in 2017. Certainly those honors should have pleased Steve, but they also allowed so many givers to formally thank him for his great contributions.

Steve taught us to attend to relationships in an intimate and professional way. His wife, his sons and his friends are not going to forget his final communications.

I remain surprised by Steve’s wish for a more sudden death. I have a dear friend who lost his wife about five years ago. Dan Untiedt;s  wife Ginny’s car  inexplicably hit a tree and she died suddenly. Dan was incredibly distraught and dearly wished he would have had some time with Ginny before she died as I had with my wife before she passed three years later.

I told Dan shortly after my wife died, that a sudden death is horrible, awful and terrible. I also told him a lingering death is horrible, awful and terrible. They are simply different.

Steve Buttry’s slow death must have been painful, horrible, awful, terrible and a loathsome burden. But for my money one of his many legacies will be the great lessons he taught us with the way he died.

God bless Steve Buttry’s soul and his outstanding family.

 

Let’s see if the second retirement takes

I retired as Editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis in summer of 2002. It didn’t take.

I wrote a syndicated column, facilitated and spoke to groups about ethics, spirituality and work for about three years. I also did a couple of visiting professor gigs at Davidson College and Washington and Lee University.

I also had plenty of time to play and relax. I found that I didn’t miss the action of editing a daily newspaper and I  didn’t miss the power either. What I found I missed was the sense of belonging to something. In 2005, when Dean Chris Callahan of the just-formed Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University offered me an endowed chair to teach the business of journalism and ethics I accepted it immediately.

And, I have belonged to something very special ever since I accepted the job. Callahan has built a remarkable journalism school and I have had an incredible ride on his bus. Students teach me every day, faculty make me laugh and make me smarter and the thrill of belonging to a journalism school that has emerged as one of the best in the country has been a fantastic adventure.

Last week Dean Callahan, in a much-too-gracious note, acknowledged my May retirement from the school. Steve Buttry had nice things to say too.

A lot of people are asking why now? The clear implication is that University teaching is a pretty cushy gig and why would I give it up. The answer is not a quick soundbite but it starts with the fact that this is not a cushy job.  If you do teaching right, and I think I do, it is hard work. It’s nothing like the pressure of running a newspaper, but it is not easy.

Further, I think retirement is an outdated word. It is defined as “the action of fact of leaving one’s job and ceasing to work.” Yes, I know some people who seem to do pretty well at ceasing to work. I  don’t think I will be one. Certainly my new bride, Candace, and I, already have two major trips planned along with several small ones. Time to just kick back is an important part of my decision.

At the same time I have some things I want to write that have just been too difficult with my teaching responsibilities. Both my wife and I are also investigating ways to give back to society too.

But at root of my retirement decision at 67 years old is my overriding emotion since my wife Jean died in 2014. “Seize the freaking day!”

A good friend of mine observed this in an email when he learned of my decision: “It’s interesting, because when Jean was ill you said you were on a retirement trajectory. After her death you said you’d never retire. Now you’re back to the plan. I guess work’s relevance is dependent on what else we have in our lives and our sense of options, huh?”

My friend is a bright intuitive guy and he nailed it. I had no intention of retiring if I didn’t have someone I loved in my life. Now that I do, I want to make sure we maximize every single day we have together. My wife Candace’s brain aneurysm reminded me, as if I needed a reminder, that nothing is guaranteed health wise. We don’t know how much time we have. I am sorry I didn’t do this for and with Jean and I don’t want to err again.

My delightful Candace and I have a lot of laughing to do. I want to make plenty of time for that.

Tim McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

 

When someone tells you they’re having chemo they have told you nothing

Here is one more post on cancer stimulated by my friend Steve Buttry.

Between his Twitter account @stevebuttry and his Caring Bridge entries Steve is, as I said on his Caring Bridge account, “the patron saint of transparency.”

Steve is convinced he can help people by explaining his struggle. Obviously, as someone who has just written a candid book called “Some People Even Take Them Home:” A Disabled Dad, a Down syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance, I also believe the power of our personal stories are the best teachers.

This week Steve wrote a fascinating post on the drugs that fight the drugs that fight the cancer. The post reminded me of a major truth I learned during my late wife Jean’s encounter with cancer: When someone tells you they are getting chemo, they have told you nothing.

I share this truth in the hope it will educate and edify friends and loved ones. Do not assume anything when your friend tells you they are getting chemo.

Jean and I used to sit in a chemo infusion lab for six to seven hours while she received two really tough drugs and an antidote three times a month. Right next to us would be a man who was getting thirty straight days of chemo and next to him would be a woman who was getting a monthly treatment. And then there are people like Steve who have in-patient chemo treatment.

The chemo drugs are very different too in their side effects and their potency. Some people suffer intense pain and discomfort. Others find themselves consumed in a battle between hope and despair. Not to put too fine a point on it, but chemo sucks.

When Jean and I started her chemotherapy regimen I admit I naively believed the process was much gentler than it turned out to be for her. I guess I had a false faith in how far the science of chemotherapy had come.

I lost Jean despite the chemo and I am sure that is why when I hear someone is undergoing the treatment a little piece of my soul chips away. I now have an empathy that comes from being the spouse of a chemo patient who couldn’t defy the odds. Of course, that makes me sad, but even more important to my personal character is now I can truly feel for the chemo patient.

My only point here is when you hear those words “I have to have chemo,” don’t assume a walk in the park, but don’t assume a horror show either. Be gentle in your assumptions, cautious with your questions, complete in your empathy and pray like hell.

The battle metaphors around cancer are probably beside the point

My friend Steve Buttry couldn’t sleep the other night and wrote a dynamite post about the battle metaphors surrounding cancer.

Steve quoted Stuart Scott’s now famous ESPY speech when he said, “When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”

Steve had made a very similar point on Dec. 12 when he disclosed his cancer diagnosis. He contended he won the battle against cancer because he survived his first cancer bout for 15 years and had lived a fun, rewarding, fruitful life.

Steve also wrote this : I did recall when I was writing in November that Jean McGuire’s obituary last June said: “In her last days she promised to haunt her husband if he included in her obituary that she had ‘lost a courageous battle with cancer.’ She despised such metaphors. She faced death as she faced the challenges of raising a Down syndrome child, with grace and class and humor.”

My wife Jean did hate the battle metaphors around cancer. She often said, “this is a fight I didn’t pick.” She personally thought it was poppycock to think that her attitude could change any outcomes and she was not interested in chasing around the country for cures. She would have participated in clinical trials but she was told she was a bad candidate. She trusted her doctors completely and firmly believed that courage was accepting “what happens will happen.”

Clearly, that attitude is too passive for many people. I have smart, courageous friends who have entered countless trials and fought like hell until the last dog was hung. Jean looked on treatment only as a vehicle to a better quality of life. If it didn’t help her do the fun things she wanted to do,  or “fix” her, she wasn’t interested.

And yet, I think that’s where Jean’s attitude intersects with that of Scott and Buttry. All three of them see and saw that the end game is not death. We all will arrive at that end-game. For all three of them the real end game was the quality of life one enjoys and demonstrates when they are still up and taking nourishment.

Jean was a model for many with her incisive humor all during her treatment and right to the end. Stuart Scott inspired with words and actions. Steve Buttry makes us all wiser with his transparent musings.

It is indeed all about the living and not about the death.