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John Buttney – Rest In Peace – 1938-2020

December 15, 2020

John Buttney in 1968 in Colorado. Found the photo on-line. Have fond memories of his wearing leather vests

I woke on this snowy mid-December morning to the news that John Buttney had died in California. Bruce Goldberg, his partner in “social justice crime” back in the day, the late 1960s, had just gotten the news and had contacted me as well as a slew of others in a group email. And for that – thanks Bruce.

It saddens me a great deal. It’s unsettling too for obvious reasons.

Another old friend and “companero” had died, leaving another hole in my being. Sometime not that long ago I came to the conclusion that while I am who I am – that I am little more than a mix of the people who have touched me and who I might have touched through my 76 years, one month and eight days on this planet. Just mix them all up in some kind of psychic jar, add a little red wine – no add a lot of red wine – and somehow the mixture is me.

High up on that list is one John Buttney.

Buttney along with Bruce Goldberg were Colorado leaders in the 1960s radical student movement, Students for a Democratic Society or SDS as it was popularly known. The Boulder Chapter was one of the most militant, strategically and organizationally sophisticated and effective chapters in the country. Their reach and influence extended far beyond the Boulder campus. It was Boulder SDS that exposed the way that the University of Colorado was joined at hip with the country’s military industrial complex through research contracts offered to many departments.

Its militant opposition to the then war in Vietnam and exposure of the horrors that the U.S. military committed in that Southeast Asian country produced a powerful on-campus anti-war movement that never had the same energy, vitality, smarts and downright humanity after SDS’s influence began to wane and it was replaced by other more dogmatic, mechanical elements.

By the time I came on the Boulder scene, Buttney and Goldberg had been forced by federal indictments to curtain their political activities. They were still in Colorado, at least for a number of years. During that time I became friends with John and (his then) wife, June Buttney, I don’t want to exaggerate the bond we shared – I was a late comer and never did work with Buttney or Goldberg in SDS, only connecting to them afterwards. But I understood that the Buttneys – both of them – were special and was drawn to them and am glad we became friends and that they both saw whatever it was in me that was worth their time and friendship. So I got to know them some. Lucky me.

Before they separated and were still “the Buttneys”, they had a home in Ward, high in the Colorado Rockies not far from Brainard Lake. John had started making speakers for stereo systems. They were big wooden structures, well made, with excellent sound – I bought a set and kept them for nearly forty years. The view east from their home in Ward was breathtaking. We talked and cooked and hiked and talked and read. I don’t remember how many times I spent the weekends with them, a dozen? two? That was in the early 1970s.

Although together – I really didn’t know much about their personal interactions although it was clear they were headed in different directions and would soon part. But there was still a kind of warmth and affection there that I found moving. It was simply decent. I remember thinking that if I had to break up with someone, that I hoped it would be that way. Of course maybe I am idealizing all that… it just a feeling. But they both made me feel comfortable, relaxed within their presence. Each had in their own way, a depth and a form of radical humanism that drew me to them.

Both John and June had fine political minds.

Much of our discussions – call them the Ward Dialogues if you will – focused around politics – what now after SDS. That movement had splintered. Where could radicalized youth like myself “find a home”, an organization a place to oppose the inequities of Capitalism – home and abroad – and to participate in the struggle for socialism. I really don’t know if John Buttney considered himself a socialist – but what else was he? Nor did we talk about specific organizations, just about the future, about what social forces might come together to give birth to revolution, what role the working class might (or might not) play in such uprising. John Buttney was among the first political friends who explained to me that U.S. global hegemony could not last, that it had been punctured irreparably by the IndoChina War – that you don’t just kill 3-4 milliion people in Southeast Asia and be able to retain the notion of being the world’s leading democracy, but that it’s decline would be long and slow. He was right about that. Later I would find more or less the same ideas wrapped in academic packaging in the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and a few others. But I’d learned the basics in the Colorado Rockies talking with John and June Buttney, smoking dope and listening to some of the finest music – rock, folk, jazz – of that explosive musical era.

And then they were gone, like so many others in Colorado – for so many such a transient place. I’d hear from June from time to time. Always warmed my heart and then she died of cancer. There is a small house – more of a cottage actually – wherer she lived on Sheridan Blvd and about 26 Ave – where Denver fades into Edgewater – where she lived after she and John broke up. I’d visit here there, we’d go out for lunch or drinks – and mostly, talk Anthropology. We were both interested in the history of Women’s roles through History. Teaching Anthro, I had become drawn to the subject too – still am. She had a pair of winter boots with liners from LL Bean. On her recommendation I bought a pair. It lasted me 45 years. When I heard she had died, the tears just poured forth. I wish all men friends like June Buttney – my friend June Buttney.

I vaguely remember writing about John Buttney on this blog some time ago. You know it’s often embarrassing for me looking back on something I’ve written. I’d rather not frankly, but there it was, in print, a part of a polemic against an anarchist effort to “Recreate 68” as they put it. There was a good deal of reflection in that piece about Buttney as he had joined the Weatherman and participated in that organization’s abortive “Days of Rage” in Chicago in connection with the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

As I recall, he had come back to Colorado for a visit – 2006, 7,  I think – and we found ourselves at a forum in Boulder about SDS. If I remember right – it was put together by Jay Jurie who was a part of the program with John and myself. We were reflecting on what SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in Colorado had done right, what it had done wrong “back in the day” – in the late 1960s. The three of us had somewhat different experiences which made the evening that much richer. It was a pretty lively session with an attentive audience. I would guess that Jay remembers more of it than I do. But what stand out in my mind is the little exchange Buttney and I had before the meeting started. He spoke about how he owed a part of his radicalism to French philosophy – I specifically remember him speaking about the thinking of Merlo Ponti. Another connection. My political awakening was also deeply influenced by French thinkers – Sartre, Camus, Malraux in particular and the fact that, quite accidentally, I had taken a vacation with my Peace Corps Tunisia friend Jim Herzog to Paris, landing their from Tunis on May 1, 1968 in time to find ourselves in the middle of one of the biggest student rebelliions of the 20th century that would bring one of the most powerful (and I might add “interesting”) 20th century politicians to his knees, Charles De Gaulle. Buttney and I both laughed.

The next day we talk a walk on the University of Colorado Boulder campus where Buttney had been “banned for life”. I don’t think the authorities noticed or cared, but it was an exceedingly satisfying gesture.

Over the years we stayed in touch by email… not that often, but the exchanges were filled with warmth, genuine affection and respect.

John Buttney – gone but not forgotten. A force for good. A genuine rebel in the best sense of the word. His whole life. And he spread the joy to many others… me included.

Here’s what I wrote about John in 2007.

An article on John from a Santa Monica, CA paper when he ran for District Superviser. My favorite quote from this article:

Buttny also is proud of the five felony convictions he received in plea bargains for anti-war protesting in the 1960s. A founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society, Buttny says he feels civic protest is an important responsibility.

Another article, this from the Santa Barbara Independent – mostly about the political work John did in California. “The Man Who Wore Many Hats

4 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    December 15, 2020 3:29 pm

    We have smart guys like this guy in the world and we end up with psychopathic imbeciles running the asylum. If there is any hope for the future of the human race, I haven’t found it yet!

  2. Rafael Humberto Mojica permalink
    December 16, 2020 1:16 pm

    What a treasure to enjoy friendships like this one!

  3. Rafael Humberto Mojica permalink
    December 16, 2020 1:26 pm

    A Memorial of this kind for a friend makes my day. How fortunate a man who enjoyed friendships like this one while being on this earth!

  4. Adam Taylor permalink
    December 23, 2020 8:18 pm

    Prince,

    Thank you so much for the article. My family and I find comfort in your words and knowing that a part of my grandpa will continue living on in you as he does with us. We are doing the best we can with the circumstances and sticking together like John would have wanted.

    @William,
    My grandpa was not alone in his fight for justice and equality. At times it is easy to get disheartened but it’s important to remember that the best thing we can do is continue to look for the good in the world. He wouldn’t have wanted you to feel defeated. Know that he couldn’t have been happier being able to get his vote in before he passed.

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