It wasn’t long after I met native Floridian John Butler on an annual “Reunion of Honor” tour on Iwo Jima, held in conjunction with the Japanese government, that he mentioned his affinity and admiration for All-American and Olympic gold-medal pole vaulter Bob Richards and football great Red Grange, both University of Illinois athletic legends.
“Grange was Number 77,” he said. “Great halfback.”
But it was Richards who inspired Butler and whom I thought of when Richards was recently inducted into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
As a 15-year-old, Butler began vaulting with a home-made rig and bamboo pole, cut from his Papa’s (step-grandfather) bamboo stand near Fort Myers, Fla. Butler lived nearby on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, where his mother moved with him, his two younger brothers and older sister after his father was killed in action on Iwo Jima in 1945.
“John got the Bob Richards hero syndrome and wanted to be the world’s best pole vaulter,” says Morey, one of Butler’s younger brothers. “Richards was the ‘man’ with the pole back then.”
Soon, Morey says, John began to build “a box to slide the pole in” and fashioned a pit “to keep his bones from breaking with old Florida Oak tree moss.”
John admittedly had limited carpenter skills but was determined to build the pit. Morey went a step further and says John “had trouble nailing and sawing.”
But he got the job done and got “the narrow bamboo standard pole from next door.” He had been vaulting with his first bamboo pole and had cleared 9 feet, so he “decided to push my luck and go for 9’6”.”
“He was so confident that he could defy gravity and launch his ass into the stratosphere that he invited his two brothers, his mother (and some friends) to witness the event,” Morey says. “She took one look at the launching pole and made an assessment that it could not support the weight of a 5-pound catfish and gave verbal warnings to her 15-year-old Olympic hopeful that disaster was on the horizon.”
“‘John,’” Morey reports she said, “‘please, please, please, please, please, please don’t try it. The pole will surely break, and that bamboo will splinter, and you may get seriously hurt or worse.’”
“Well,” Morey says, “us Butler boys are just a mite slow on taking advice, and with pole in hand, he bore down on his target, slipped the pole in the box and launched himself into that classic feet-up, head-down vaulting position. It didn’t last a millisecond before that unmistakable CRACK sound reverberated through the neighborhood.”
Their mother, reportedly unable to watch what might happen to her son, stood with hands covering her eyes, pleading with God to resurrect him from his mortal wounds and heal him.
“Her fears were legitimate, because I watched the event very closely,” Morey says. “The vaulting pole shattered, and John narrowly avoided looking like one of those mullets we used to gig all the time. He fell back into his wooden death trap and his right knee kissed his right eye. He ended up with a knot on his noggin and a fine-lookin’ black eye.”
That was the last of his vaulting at home. His mother “put a stop to any more of his attempts to establish a world record in the home environment.”
In high school, John vaulted, ran the mile and also ran a leg on the mile relay. By his senior year, he had cleared 10 feet, 10 inches, but he always had to leave the vaulting competition when it was time to run the mile and didn’t vault again until a year after high school, when he was a Navy plebe.
Richards continued to be an inspiration. He had cleared 15 feet multiple times, had won gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and was the world’s dominant pole vaulter in his day. Richards was also an accomplished multi-event athlete who competed in the 1956 Olympic Decathlon.
Butler says he was not “an accomplished pole vaulter,” like Richards, but did vault at the collegiate level as a Naval Academy midshipman and for the Quantico Marine track team in 1962 after he was commissioned in the Marine Corps.
He says his best vault of 13 feet, 6 inches was made with a 16-foot tapered Swedish steel pole, vaulting off the wrong take-off foot.
“I had a serious flaw in my style,” John said, ”which my coach (at the Naval Academy) tried to change. He felt I could have gone a foot higher had I learned to vault off the correct take-off foot.”
While vaulting off the wrong foot may have stopped Butler from going higher, Richards had an effect on him and his pole vaulting. Morey says, jokingly, that that lofty inspiration is still alive in him: “He’s trying to figure out what the record vault is for old folks above the age of 75.”
Butler got to meet Richards in the early 1980s at a Masters Track and Field age group event in Delray Beach, Fla., in which they both participated. Richards was in his mid-50s and Butler was 41. He has a treasured photo of the two of them together after the meet that hangs in his home office in Temple Terrace, Fla.
“Meeting Bob Richards at that Master’s track meet and going to dinner with him and our wives after the meet was a lifetime highlight, and the photo with him is a treasure,” he says.