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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Major Butt and the Titantic

by Clay Coppedge
SALADO - Major Archibald Willingham Butt is not a household name in most places, but the Doug Willingham household in Salado is not one of those places.

Willingham, a Salado dentist and a direct descendant of Bell County's first Anglo settler, Archibald Willingham, is researching a biography of the man friends and family knew affectionately as Archie. Educated at the University of the South in Sewanne, Tennessee, Butt worked first as journalist in the South before a hitch in the Army led to a military career and a position as military aide to Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as an aide to President Taft.

Willingham says Butt is likely responsible for most of today's modern White House protocol. He also wrote a manual for transporting mules long-distance aboard ships. The manual was used as long as the Army transported mules.

Today, if Maj. Archibald Butt is remembered at all, it is for being among the most prominent of the 1,500 or so people who perished when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Butt was 46 years old.

Willingham's interest in the Titanic precedes his fascination with Butt. He saw the 1953 film as a nine-year old, and a fascination with all things Titanic began.

"Something about the story really got under my skin," he says.

In the course of researching the Titanic he kept stumbling across the name of Archibald Willingham Butt. His interest was piqued because Butt's first and middle names matched the name of his pioneer forefather.

The more he learned about Maj. Butt, the more he wanted to know. He looked for a Butt biography but there wasn't one. Willingham decided to write one himself. He has not only Butt's three volumes of published letters, but also has Butt's personal scrapbooks.

"You can't begin to understand the man without the scrapbooks," Willingham, says. "In those books you see what was important to him, what he wanted to remember. "What I want to do (with the biography) is understand what made him tick."

Willingham has the cooperation of Butt's family, which has embraced Willingham as one of their own, which he is, albeit distantly.

The family agrees that Butt has been given short shrift by historians. "Part of that might be the awkwardness of his name," Willingham allows. The closest Hollywood has come to recognizing Butt came in the blockbuster 1997 movie directed by James Cameron when the character's name was changed to "Butz."

Willingham was recently interviewed by a French film crew for a documentary on the Titanic. The film makers interviewed Willingham for several hours and even persuaded him to slip into a replica of Butt's uniform that Willingham has.

"I don't know if they'll use that or not," he says of the shot of him wearing the uniform. "Maybe I won't end up completely on the cutting room floor."

Butt was loyal to both presidents he served, but was caught in the middle when Roosevelt and Taft began a bitter and public feud late in Taft's term of office. The strain of trying to remain neutral took a physical and emotional toll on Butt. A trip to Europe was thought to be just the thing to lift his sagging spirits.

Butt boarded the Titanic after an extended stay in Europe that included an audience with the Pope. With him was his close friend, the painter Francis Millet. A painting Millet once did of Butt is believed to be the only painting of one Titanic victim painted by another Titanic victim.

In the days after the disaster at sea, Butt was among the male passengers survivors remembered acting with tremendous dignity and courage.

Willingham says he always finds an attentive audience when he talks about Archie Butt because of the Titanic connection.

"You can start a conversation with almost anybody if you just bring up the Titanic," he says.

Along with Salado author Elizabeth Silverthorne Willingham has hosted a Titanic Texas weekend, which drew Titanic enthusiasts from all over the state. Music was from the days of the Titanic. Other entertainment included a rare viewing of a 1950s TV production about the Titanic based on the book "A Night To Remember" by Walter Lords. Visitors were greeted at the door by Willingham, resplendent in his replica of Butt's uniform.

Archie Butt has not faded completely into oblivion. A fountain near the White House honors him. A bridge in Augusta bears his name. And a Salado dentist is determined to see that history gives the man his due.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"

November 15, 2004 column
 
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