Harold Butler was a man who always had an energetic ear-to-ear smile.
His life story is what his younger brother calls “an inspiration.”
Butler, the oldest of seven siblings, survived his service in the Vietnam War – though he was injured and paralyzed from the waist down – then went on to open Butler Properties, a real estate agency on Monterey Road. According to friend and co-worker Donald Cowan, he was one of the first African-Americans to start his own business in Morgan Hill in 1987.
Harold died Dec. 22, 2011 in his sleep. He was 63 years old.
Originally from Chicago, Butler moved to Morgan Hill just after his life took a dramatic change. In December 1968 he was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps and shipped off to serve in the Vietnam War at 20 years old in 1969.
But while Harold was on his way to Saigon for a night mission with other Marines, their unit was attacked, his younger brother Robert Butler said. The next thing Harold said he remembers was waking up in a veterans hospital in Wisconsin, Robert said. It was then that he discovered he was paralyzed from the waist down. He was one of the few survivors from that attack.
Harold told doctors he was determined to walk down the aisle – regardless of physical disability – at his nuptials to his blushing bride Kathryn, whom he met in April 1969.
After vigorous physical therapy, with his legs strapped into braces and using crutches, he used his upper body strength to walk down the aisle.
“It was the first time anyone saw him walk after his accident. It was really an inspiring moment for everybody,” Robert said.
When he moved to Morgan Hill in 1970, he decided to build his own house in Jackson Oaks.
“He was a paralyzed Vietnam veteran, at 21, building a house. That’s what I’m talking about,” said Robert.
“He’s always been an inspiration. He was very strong, and very powerful,” Cowan said.
“He had the strength of a professional football player, the balance of a wrestler and the determination of a long distance marathon runner. He inspired people around the office.”
Also in the 1970s, Harold and Kathryn dedicated their lives to Jehovah’s Witness, and were active in the Morgan Hill and the Gilroy Gavilan congregations until his death. Robert said Harold was a pioneer, dedicating many hours each week going door to door, on crutches, while maintaining his real estate office.
“He never ever complained. Never ever,” said Robert, who moved to Morgan Hill in 1984 to be closer to Harold. “You can’t imagine the things he had to do every day. Getting out of bed for him, was an ordeal. Getting into a car, going to the bathroom … every move that people take for granted, for Harold, it took him at least five minutes and he never complained.”
Robert said Harold used his crutches and leg braces until he reached his late 50s when he used a wheelchair more frequently. Even then, he hardly allowed people to push his wheelchair, preferring to move it himself. Robert encouraged him to get a motorized wheelchair, but Harold said “No, I need the exercise,” recalls Robert.
For the past several years Robert was Harold’s “hands” helping him around the house.
“I found a joy in doing it, even though sometimes it would be inconvenient. But he would never know that.”
Cowan, a former Live Oak High School teacher, said Harold also volunteered in the 1990s at Live Oak’s Computer Business Academy serving as a mentor to youth.
“He reminded me of President Franklin Roosevelt because you didn’t notice most of the time that he was physically disabled,” said Cowan, who met Harold at Prospectors Property Management before Harold started Butler Properties. When Harold started his own agency, Cowan followed him and the two worked together for more than 20 years.
“He was salesman of the month, month after month, even salesman of the year. I would go ‘How can this guy do it?’ And then as soon as you met him, and saw his magnetic personality, that smile on his face, you could see that he had charisma. He was a leader,” said Cowan.
Harold, with no children of his own, attended every graduation and important life moment in Robert’s family, since his other five siblings live mostly in Texas and Chicago. An avid jazz fan, Harold attended festivals in the area, and supported theater.
“Losing him, I lost my best friend because I shared all my thoughts, stories, that he’s taken to grave with him,” said Robert.
“I’m going to miss sharing those things with him, that I needed to share with a person that I could trust.”