Bob Butler’s door is always open. And inside that door you will find faith and hope in abundance, all of it emanating from the gentle guidance provided by Pastor Bob Butler. The goofy kid who roamed the hallways of Wilmington High School before graduating in 1980 without much of a plan for his life going forward is now the Pastor at the Open Door Baptist Church in Belmont. In his days as a Wilmington Wildcat, Butler mostly hung out with his buddies, played varsity athletics and concentrated on having a good time. That smile in his high school yearbook photo tells you that back then Bob just might have been all about having a whole lot of fun.
Butler played varsity basketball for some Wildcat basketball teams that weren’t very good and ran track and cross country for the legendary coach Frank Kelley. Despite Wilmington High School role models in his life like Kelley and teacher/coach Dick Scanlon, Butler was still left searching for some direction. Granted, those coaches and teachers doled out their fair share of guidance, but in those days Bob freely admits that he went wherever the wind took him. Sometimes he might have thought to always expect the unexpected from himself. But what’s the point of making a point when you are having a blast in high school? He was voted “Class Clown” of the Wilmington High School Class of 1980, a title that he still lists at the top of his Wilmington High School achievements. Butler knows where he came from and how long it took him to get there. That title of “clown” might have been a downer to some people, but not to Butler. He always had plenty of hope and a deep seeded competitive nature. And he was still having a lot of fun.
Butler was too busy having a good time in high school to think much about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Remembering who he was back at Wilmington High School helped Butler to learn from those years and mentor people he can relate to now in their particular moments of doubt.
“I really had no nose for adventure,” he says of his attitude before he legitimately found Jesus in the most unlikely of places. “I was really pushed into places that I really didn’t want to go.”
Butler likens himself to the character “Bilbo Baggins” — The Hobbit of the Shire, the main protagonist of The Hobbit and a secondary character in The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo was the first Hobbit to become famous in The World at Large and was one of the few to visit The Undying Lands Across The Ocean. At one point the character Thorin says to (and about) Bilbo: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Butler peppers his conversations with historical examples and offers up sermons in a folksy, “aw shucks” manner on Sunday mornings at the Open Door Baptist Church. He says the phrase “iron sharpens iron” several times when asked about his life’s journey.
“The famed sculptor Armand Lamontagne is known for his wooden sculptures in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. When asked how he produced such stunning likenesses, he is known to have passed along a quote from the masters. He said something similar to, ‘I just kept chipping off anything that didn’t look like Ted Williams’. A Proverb from the Hebrew Scriptures says: “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend,” 27:17. My life is a continual chipping off and filing down of flaws, frailties, and stubborn bad habits. I have been shaped as the Proverb says by the people the Lord has so wisely brought into my life at various times.”
In these days when his parish family is trying to cope with a pandemic and a nation in the midst of dealing with racial injustice, it’s up to people like Butler to be a calming presence while making some sense of it all. You look up at the altar on a Sunday morning and you see that gentle smile. Butler never raises his voice, choosing to look the listener straight in the eye and make a point that might stick way beyond a Sunday morning in church. That goofball from Wilmington High School has morphed into a man on a mission of faith and hope when all might seem lost. A sparse gathering on a recent Sunday as his church begins to slowly open in Phase One of a pandemic won’t deter Butler from giving everything he’s got. What would The Lord do? Butler knows the answer already. He would get to work. Butler has a job to do on the day before his 58th birthday. The cake and all the birthday fixings will be well worth the wait. Butler feels that the greatest gift in life is his ability to relate his experiences of finding The Lord each and every Sunday.
“We are not even close to fully reopening at church yet,” Butler says before celebrating his birthday with family and friends. “We had a sparse crowd Sunday. Most people are still waiting for the all-clear. We had a devastating 2017 and 2018 where we lost more than 35 percent of the church to moves and job transfers. We were just gaining some momentum for 2019 and 2020 when the virus struck. Our attendance will now be measured as BC-before COVID.”
One of Butler’s recent sermons focused on how we recover from a nation in turmoil to get back to some semblance of where we were in America. Both the effects of the pandemic and racial injustice will likely linger. Butler, like every rational thinking person in America, knows that both problems are fixable. He also knows that its going to take a parish — and a nation — working together. Everyone needs to pull on the societal rope, as it were. The sermon Livestreamed to parishioners touched on the doubts and fears that we all face today.
“Will the new normal be as good as life before the virus?” Butler quietly asks. “If you are uneasy about the future, our next series (of sermons) will be helpful. Look beyond disappointments and see His Appointments. We are confident that The Lord has an adventure for you in our new normal.”
Butler has been coping with loss and sadness for most of this year. How Bob recovers from the sadness that comes with mourning the loss of a loved one plays a role in his helping others deal with that same sadness. It’s true that everyone grieves differently. Butler sees his position in life as one of comforter and advice giver together. We are stronger when we work together and help one another. Butler knows that he has a big helping hand in all of this. The Lord is with Butler these days. He knows that for sure. The first rays of faith and hope in Butler’s life journey would begin in a house on Middlesex Avenue in Wilmington.
A MOTHER AND BROTHER LOST
Butler’s mother Marie died from COVID-19 on April 15 after living with Alzheimer’s and dementia for many years. Marie was born in that house on Middlesex Avenue and would meet her husband Carl “Hawk” Butler when both were attending Wilmington High School. The couple, among the last graduates from the old high school (Swain School) in 1950, married shortly thereafter and started a family. Siblings Carlene, Carl, Bob and Susan would all walk the hallways of Wilmington High School, with Carlene really making her mark as arguably the greatest female athlete in WHS history. Carlene played field hockey, basketball and softball for the Wildcats and would later be honored with induction into the school’s athletic hall of fame. Carl quarterbacked the WHS football team in 1974 and was well respected in the community. Carl died last year from complications from diabetes. The youngest Susan (WHS Class of 1981) danced ballet for several years. Sadly, Marie would lose an infant in childbirth. Another deeply felt loss for Butler and his family. The fact that Butler has a reservoir of deep faith to draw upon has a lot to do with his outlook on life. It’s not an accident. It’s not fate or luck. Its faith. Deeply felt and genuine faith.
Butler speaks matter-of-factly and lovingly when talking about the deaths of his mother and brother. It might seem an odd juxtaposition of emotions if the listener didn’t understand that Butler believes that he has a higher power in his corner. He also understands without a doubt that his wife of 29 years Melissa and his son Kyle (27 years old) and daughters Mandy (23) and Julie (20) are all collectively a great source of support.
All three Butler siblings attended Abundant Life Christian School in Wilmington before graduating from Minuteman Tech in Lexington and Bedford. Kyle and Mandy graduated from Boston Baptist College with degrees in Biblical Studies. Kyle is currently working for Piggott Electric and enrolled in classes to get his licensing. Mandy works at a special needs school as a coordinator. The youngest Julie will be attending a nursing school in the Fall. Butler’s children are success stories who will each contribute to rebuilding the country as we adjust to the our new normal. Young people are vital to our comeback as a country. Butler is certain that his children will be big-time contributors in that effort.
“Several reasons for my optimism is that my three kids make an impact,” he says. “My three children have a gracious character that is so far beyond what the old man had at their age. They are positive influences on whatever their situation is, whatever it is, and whoever they’re with. When things look down they help me and others to look up.”
The Butler brood grew up around faith and saw their dad step up when a particular parish needed him the most. Butler would start the Bethel Baptist Church on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge on July 6, 1991. Seven years later Butler was called to where someone thought that he was needed most. “The church in Belmont called me to their pastorate in 1998 and we combined the two churches. It was renamed the Open Door Baptist Church.” They say that God has a plan. For Butler, this plan has been in place for almost 29 years.
A REVELATION AT DUNKIN DONUTS
“Three of my college years I paid for with money I made from the farm produce that I grew and sold off the back of my pickup truck. When my growing season was over, I’d work at the old Yentile Farm picking zucchini. After the summers were over, I worked night shift for several years at the local Dunkin Donuts. I believe that it was the only Dunkin in Wilmington at the time. That would be life changing as I came to a personal faith in Christ in that location one night. I was ordained to the ministry at Heritage Park Baptist Church in Burlington in 1990. Starting in 1982 it was on to the NAPA warehouse for 17 years. My wife and I started a Baptist church in a storefront on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge in 1991. We were in that neighborhood for seven years and then relocated a mile up the street to combine with another church and became Open Door Baptist Church. This great church has allowed me the privilege of helping my siblings care for my late mom who was stricken with Alzheimer’s and dementia in 2007. After she was transitioned to secure care a few years ago, I began some part time work helping families whose seniors are memory challenged.”
“Unfortunately, not only did the COVID-19 virus claim the life of my mom, but also one of my beloved clients. It has also affected how my wife and I attend to the seniors we currently care for. Our church services are still largely done online and it’ll be a short time before our community that has been hard hit will be comfortable with us fully opening our doors. That said, we see this situation as a unique opportunity to help and comfort people struggling with these difficult conditions.”
“My proudest moment in high school strangely enough was being elected class clown by my Wilmington High School classmates in 1980. I always thought that there were plenty of guys that would have been a better choice than me, so that was special,” chuckles Butler at this lighthearted moment in his high school life.
“I was the class clown who was also a troubled soul with a difficult home life. My sins and lifestyle were out of control and heading in a bad direction. Thankfully, one night at Dunkin Donuts the resident Bible slinging fanatic worked my shift. I was determined to not hear anything she was saying. Instead she answered one question that was haunting me at that point in my life. How can anyone know for sure what happens to them after death? She had a confident and well informed set of answers. That night changed my life, as I asked the Lord Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. Ultimately, to receive God’s gift of eternal life in Christ instead of trying to achieve that life was transformational. I was a mess, and I was fortunate to have the Lord provide the ‘iron that sharpened iron’ that began to shape and transform my flawed character. I’ve been asked many times why I chose to go into the ministry? I just felt that after what the Lord did for me I wanted to give back to as many people as possible. Not everyone has someone to patiently answer the deep questions of life and provide a transformational solution for problems. I offer the same opportunity that I was given to as many people who are interested.”
TEACHERS LAID A FOUNDATION
“Several teachers and coaches at Wilmington High School laid foundations in areas of my life that are still being built on. Two junior high school teachers were seismic in that their teaching methods that I still lean on to this day. Peter Brumis and Mike Tammaro were masters at using new ways of presenting subject matter that held our interests as junior high students. Several of their presentations and lessons I still remember from class. The important aspect was the principles that they used to teach have continued from their classroom to our church pulpit. Two teachers from Wilmington High School had an impact that was vital at the time and still resonates with me. Gino DiSarcina initiated methodology to critically examine a point of view and assess how history and news are communicated. Even during my college years and beyond, I was prepared to challenge and be challenged. Betsy Greco was the best English teacher ever. She was tough on me, and wouldn’t put up with my flippant and nasty attitude. College English was easier than high school. Some of the disciplines of thought process and composition still shape my presentations.
“There were two other teachers that were influential, not for what they taught me, but for who they were. Doug Anderson was a stabilizing presence for a young kid at a time when I needed it more than anyone knew. However the biggest impact of any teacher that I never actually had in class was an elementary teacher named Ruth Mullarky. She was a friend of the family, and during many difficult days and she was there for our family and for me. She was the most encouraging person in my young life. I miss her to this day.
“When it comes to coaches, I was very fortunate to have Coach Frank Kelley for eight different seasons. He got more out of my average abilities than any coach I ever had. I still wonder if I should have run winter track instead of playing basketball. His patience, optimism, and sternness when I needed it made him the best coach at Wilmington High School at the time, maybe for all-time. These were all sculptors that the Lord sent to prepare me for other adventures in life. God bless their memories and legacies.
“High school was difficult for an insecure, very average guy like me. I was very fortunate to have a very loyal Band of Brothers. We actually referred to ourselves as the “assorted nuts”. This collection of misfits and spare parts were not the cool kids, but the funniest cut-ups and clowns that the school had. Incredibly, two of us went on to become ordained Baptist pastors. We got a lot of stunned looks at the first couple of class reunions. Sadly, two of our other buddies — Mark Lanni (Gopher) and Keith MacDonald (KeeKee) have passed away. Keith was a faithful member at our church, some years driving an hour to get there. Two of the greatest moments of my life was to be privileged to baptize Keith in the early 90’s and to be on the ordination council for my buddy Brian McGrath.
“As kids we used to hang out at the two best diners in Wilmington and talk about sports and the latest Rick Cooke articles in the Town Crier. You could hear a lot of discussions at Campbell’s Restaurant and Winston’s Diner. The Campbell family is still one of my ‘adoptive’ townie families. My buddy Paul Campbell and I lived in the shadow of our older brothers who were star athletes (Leo Campbell and Carl Butler). Our brothers and families strongly shaped our high school years and created a lifelong bond.
“School back then was still ‘old school’ in many ways. Classes were 28-30 students with one teacher, but the teachers kept a pretty tight classroom. The teachers could threaten us with detention or talk to our coaches. Playing time was affected, so we had to know when our classroom antics had to stop. Methods were not as sensitive as they are today. Although the classrooms could be a little strict, some teachers like the legendary Dick Scanlon had us howling in laughter.
“The most memorable moments were my incredible teammates in each sport. Several of us stay in touch. The bonds that were forged on the courts, tracks, busses, and away games were something that we look back on with great gratitude. And the memories we made together included the final buzzer of the triple overtime win over Tewksbury on our home floor, which was my last high school basketball game. My buddy Rodney Millett broke both wrists in the second game of that year, but ended up playing in that last game. He blocked two shots late in the game and sent it into the first overtime by sinking two free throws with no time remaining.
“The second memorable moment also involved Tewksbury. I was a rather mediocre freshman miler, the gun goes off in the last dual meet of the season and I’m in the back of the pack. Out of the corner of my eye I see a German Shepherd chasing another small dog or animal. That shepherd ran through the mile runners and took my legs out from under me. It actually caused me to do a complete 360 degree flip. Since I was out of that race, Mr. Kelley wanted to give me another event to run. There was a junior 220 sprint. Running in miler’s flats and from a standing start, I won that race handily. It changed my track career thanks largely to our coaches Kelley and Bob Cripps, another coaching legend from that 1975 track team.
“I remember several teammates from that era fondly as well. We have known each other for as long as 50 years. Scott Nolan, Gary Hastings, and Rodney Millett from our basketball team have stayed in touch to this day. One of my best friends from those basketball teams was Neil Wetzler, who passed away. His loss is still stunning. John Mucci from the track team has also kept in touch with me. Their friendships have made life richly rewarding. All of those experiences with my high school teammates has led me to stay involved with coaching junior high school basketball off and on for thirty-plus years. The players and their families of those teams are some of my greatest memories. I remember when Jim McCune came to town to coach at the high school. I coached many of the players that were on his first team. That was the start of some good seasons for Wilmington High School basketball.”
After 12 seasons (four each in basketball, track and cross country) of playing sports at Wilmington High School-including being honored as the co-recipient of the Most Improved Athlete on the 1979 track team, Butler went on to study at Middlesex Community College (1983) and Boston Baptist College (1989).
THE GREATEST JOB IN THE WORLD
“A typical day in my life would be to start the day reading, praying, and coordinating the different connections that have to be made on that day. I have recently taken on a small part time job helping families to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Having cared for my mother for 13 years in that condition, our family has decided to help others during those difficult times. Planning for various meetings at our active church can take between two to five days longer than the meeting itself. In the ministry solving people problems are always an X factor that can unexpectedly alter the course of many days. Visiting needy people is always a consideration for the available time that is left in a day. Making time for family is always a struggle, but their patience over the years has kept this hard-to-schedule lifestyle from overwhelming us. Several days in the week start at 5:30 a.m. and end late at night. It is a great adventure. I have the greatest job in the world.”
“The greatest hope for the world and any individual is the Good News of the Gospel that can transform the most difficult situations. It has been my privilege to minister in houses of correction, orphanages, people trapped in addictions, broken families, and see dramatic transformations that the Gospel can produce. It is the original grass roots hope that takes people where they are and lifts them out of their situation. Every country in every condition benefits when faithful churches are allowed to minister in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. As the days and conditions seem to grow darker, the most profound social movements happen when individuals respond to the Good News of the Gospel. In ten years I’ll be doing more itinerant speaking and training. My time in the Boston area would likely be relocated to either West Virginia or Georgia at that point.”
For the past several years Butler and his wife have helped lead a mission with other churches to make Christmas a joyful time for Hungarian orphans. The Hungarian American Fellowship is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2011. Their mission is to meet the physical and spiritual needs of those orphans. The fellowship also sponsors summer and winter camps in Hungary. The Butlers have spent many hours driving the tough roads of Budapest as the unofficial Mr. and Mrs. Claus from Massachusetts.
Butler pauses and offers up his hopes for the future. Where will Bob Butler be in this world ten years from now? It’s a big picture question that Butler answers simply with an answer bonded securely by his deep faith.
“I hope to be in the churches, pulpits, jails, orphanages, bedsides of the dying, and living rooms of people in trouble. Like Bilbo Baggins, as a Wilmington Townie. I didn’t want to ever leave the town. I didn’t even go to college right out of high school. The Lord has given me the privilege to be the iron that sharpens another iron. Helping with the Hungarian orphans has been a life changing experience to see the other side of that world. My teachers, coaches, classmates, teammates, church, and family have been the instruments to sharpen the opportunities that I have been blessed with. Not everyone has someone to patiently answer the deep questions of life and provide a transformational solution for problems. I offer the same opportunity that I was given to as many people who are interested.
“I can only hope that anyone I have wronged along the way would give me an opportunity to seek forgiveness and make things right. I am not a wealthy man materially, but I’m a very rich man by God’s grace.”