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Butta's volunteering: Can't say 'No'

J. Henry Butta says "it was just a matter of not being able to say no." But Maryland's public leaders know better. They know Mr. Butta, for years chief executive officer of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., believes society's fortunate few have a duty to give something back.

And that led him to become volunteer leader of some of the state's biggest civic programs.

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In the time left over from his job as C&P; president, Mr. Butta, 64, has headed the United Way of Central Maryland's annual campaign, chaired the National Aquarium board, managed Baltimore's Blue Chip-in, run a counseling program aimed at lowering the school dropout rate, headed the Baltimore mayoral task force that recommended a new downtown baseball stadium, supervised a gubernatorial transition, and headed the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

In 1991, Mr. Butta retired from C&P.; And now, heeding his doctor's advice to take it easy because of high blood pressure, Mr. Butta has turned in his last volunteer's report -- as head of the Governor's Commission on Economy and Efficiency in Government -- suggesting changes that could cut expenses or generate new revenue totaling $225 million for the state.

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Born in Baltimore and raised in Highlandtown, Mr. Butta graduated from Loyola High School.

Offered a full football scholarship to Georgetown University, Mr. Butta, an only child, turned it down to go to work, in 1947, to support his mother.

The job: C&P; messenger boy, for $18 a week.

Last week, from his Anne Arundel County home, Mr. Butta reflected on his years in public service.

QUESTION: How did all of this start?

ANSWER: The company made it very clear to senior management that they valued our participation in community affairs, so I decided, "Well, I'm not just here to be a technician. I guess I'll join the Lions Club."

That was in Annapolis, about 1960. A great Lions Club. They had a big eye program: 1,000 eye exams a year and glasses for poor persons. We helped so many people. I began to see the need in the community. And once that happened, it was just a matter of not being able to say no.

Q.: What kept you involved in program after program?

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A.: You get out in the community. You see a center for the aged. You see a program for kids.

You get rid of the stuff you grew up with.

People always say that people who want to work can get a job, or people who want to can help themselves. That's bull.

I went to Mondawmin one morning when I headed the PIC [Private Industry Council] as an interviewer [for jobs].

People were lined up at 5:30 in the morning for an office that opens at 7:30.

I talked to qualified people who had been everywhere for a job and couldn't find one.

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You just can't sit around and let that happen.

Q.: How did your volunteer work lead you to meet William Donald Schaefer -- and a string of positions on government panels?

A.: [In 1979] the mayor was starting a series of lunches to educate the corporate heads of Baltimore about the job his department heads did.

Over time, it became clear to us that these were good people who knew how to do their jobs.

When the mayor started asking us for help, how could we say no?

The first big project was Blue Chip-in. We raised corporate money to pay for things that were previously paid for by government dollars.

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Then-Mayor Schaefer said, "You've got to help me. I'm losing federal funds."

We paid for summer-job programs. We kept swimming pools open. You didn't have to look far to see where to put your efforts.

Q.: One of your next big responsibilities came after Bob Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis, when Mr. Schaefer named you to head a task force charged with bringing football back to Baltimore. That panel eventually recommended building a new stadium at Camden Yards.

A.: The mayor had asked Willard Hackerman, [the late] Frank DeFrancis and me to try to convince Mr. Irsay not to go elsewhere. We thought we were doing well, until a snowy Wednesday night when I got a call from City Hall saying the moving vans were leaving for Indianapolis.

We met the next morning.

The mayor said, "I want our team back, and I want to know what to do with our stadium to make it a first-class stadium." And he looked at me and said, "You're the chairman."

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We named ourselves the corporate task force. We raised our own money.

We used not one penny of taxpayer money.

We worked hard on that, night after night in high school auditoriums debating with politicians, testifying in Annapolis. No one thought we needed a new stadium, and no one thought it should be at Camden Yards.

A letter to your newspaper said, "Who is this village idiot Butta?"

We were the first to recommend a new stadium downtown. When I looked out over all those people on Opening Day [1992] and saw how they loved the place, I thought, "Where were all you people in 1984 and 1985?"

Q.: The governor is not known for a placid disposition. You've worked so closely with him on so many projects. How do you get along?

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A.: I got along very well with him. To begin with, I was trained in a corporation where you were allowed to disagree. And if you didn't get the message and didn't perform, you were allowed to catch what-for.

The governor's a very strong leader. We didn't get mad with each other.

He was the boss, and I was the worker.

Don't forget, I started at C&P; as a messenger boy. I knew how to relate to my boss.

Q.: After all this, do you have a favorite project?

A.: Oh, yeah. Maryland's Tomorrow.

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It's primary purpose was to put a big effort into keeping kids in school.

We have 15,000 dropouts a year in this state.

Maryland's Tomorrow identifies potential dropouts -- and you can identify them as surely as you see storm clouds coming.

They get a counselor or a mentor 12 months a year to be sure they're getting what they need. We've cut the dropout rate about 6,000 a year.

When we see kids who would have been out of school but took this counseling, and then they wind up tutoring other kids, that's the best feeling in the world.

Q.: What would you say to encourage other corporate managers to get involved in public service?

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A.: I'd say, "None of us are where we are because we deserve to be there."

I think we have to give back to those who are less fortunate than we are. If you don't give back, you're just taking.

The second thing is, "You're missing half your life for feeling good."

Q.: So you got something back?

A.: Oh, boy, did I.



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