There's no place like home for West Tennessee native Walter Butler, who returned to his alma mater as President of Bethel University in 2014 after serving as Interim President the previous year. Dr. Butler, a father of three sons and grandfather of nine, says family is everything -- and “family” is what he considers the students, faculty, trustees, staff and alumni who comprise what he calls the “heart and soul” of the school.
For Butler and his fellow Wildcats, Bethel is far more than just a place to receive a degree.
“Earning a degree isn’t an ending – it’s a beginning,” Butler says. “When you walk across that stage with your diploma, you’re not only changing your life for the next 40 or 50 years, you may be changing the next two or three generations of your family tree.”
Dr. Butler says his over-arching responsibility is to make sure that every student receives an outstanding education, whether on campus or online. “We’re small enough that you’re far more than just a number here,” he says. “You’ll really get to know your classmates and your professors at Bethel. If you want to excel academically, we’re going to give you a chance to really shine – through your coursework, with support staff, or with internships. In addition, you can be involved in opportunities outside the classroom, whether it’s on the playing field, in the community, the state, or the world. If you want to be a good servant, Bethel is an excellent place to learn how to serve.”
Dr. Butler’s philosophy of servant-leadership is illustrated by his down-to-earth approachability. He’s a familiar face around campus, and new students are often surprised to find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with the university president.
“I get out and walk the campus, eat in the cafeteria, stop by the bookstore … I may pop in to visit a class in Jackson or Nashville in the evening,” he says. Beyond the open-door policy of his Campbell Hall office, he often attends student forums, meets with Student Government, and even hosts an ice-cream social every fall. During “finals week” in the spring and fall, students are invited to enjoy “Pancakes with the President,” a sweet way to de-stress before going back to the books.
“The thing that makes me tick is the chance to change so many different lives. We’ve got students from 16 years old to 70 years old, from all walks of life,” President Butler says. “It’s an amazing opportunity -- and the driving force behind everything I do.”
President Butler says his previous professional experiences uniquely formed and guided his present-day leadership. Immediately after completing his undergraduate degree at Bethel, he started work as an admissions counselor at the school in 1975. He held the position for three years, and then ran for the office of Carroll County Trustee. At 24, Butler became the youngest county-wide official ever elected in Carroll County. Butler was re-elected three times and once as County Executive, spending a total of nearly 18 years in Carroll County government.
In 1996, Gov. Don Sundquist tapped him to serve as Tennessee’s Director of State Parks, overseeing 1,600 employees and a budget of $57 million. From there, Sundquist appointed him Deputy Commissioner of Personnel for Tennessee’s 38,000 employees, and then named him Commissioner of Personnel. When Governor Sundquist's term ended, Butler returned to his alma mater, first as Director of Business Affairs, then as Vice President of the College of Liberal Arts, and finally as Vice President for Bethel’s College of Criminal Justice.
“A lifetime of dealing with people had a huge impact on my world-view. As a public servant, I had to do the right thing every day. The responsibilities and challenges were great. Even though I never planned on being president of this university, all of that led to this.” Butler is deeply aware of Bethel’s long and rich history and is humbled by the responsibility of leading a Christian university that’s been closely affiliated with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church since its founding in 1842.
“It’s easy to be involved in a school that believes in doing the right thing,” he says.
And by doing so, President Butler sees a bright future for Bethel. “We continue to grow both our on-campus opportunities and our online presence. And we’re not only producing graduates who go on to become leaders in their fields, we’re changing the lives of every individual we touch.”
Dr. Butler admits that his hands-on approach to running a university leaves little time for anything else. “My wife and I treasure every minute we can spend together, and we really enjoy playing with our grandkids and going to their ball games.” They – along with the newest addition to the Butler family, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy named Molly – keep President Butler grounded, energized, and fully committed to fulfill Bethel’s promise to “create opportunities for members of the learning community to develop in a Christian environment to their highest intellectual, spiritual, and social potential.”