A Force of Nature

Despite a lifetime of  health challenges, Rosie Butler’s extraordinary life has been a testament to the notion that courage, joy and the will to succeed can overcome anything.

by Rosalind Fournier, Photography by Beau Gustafson

Rosie Butler

A few years back when Dr. Joseph Bloomer wanted to take fundraising efforts for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Liver Center to a new level, he called on Rosie Butler. He knew of Butler’s reputation as a warrior for promoting public-health causes.

At the time Bloomer called, Butler was taking a break to let her body recuperate from her own significant health challenges. But, never one to walk away from a challenge, Butler took Bloomer’s plea to raise $50,000— and upped it by $100,000.

“I said, why $50,000? Why don’t we start with $150,000?” she recalls.

Butler suggested a dinner honoring legendary Green Bay quarterback and Birminghamian Bart Starr, an event that proved astounding success. The next year, Butler decided on Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell as honoree. (Campbell is close friends with her son, Chris Butler; the two played football together at Auburn.) Those two dinners, in 2007 and 2008, netted a half million dollars to help people living with chronic liver diseases.

“If you’ve ever been in action with Rosie,” Bloomer says, “she’s a force.”

Butler operates under many people’s radar here in Birmingham. But in the fund raising community, Butler is, indeed, a force. “Most of us don’t have the faintest idea how to make those kinds of things happen,” Bloomer says. “I could call Bart Starr and say, ‘We’re having a liver fund raising dinner, and he’d say, ‘What?’ But Rosie said she could get him there. And she did.”

Coke Matthews, chief development officer for Children’s Hospital of Alabama, puts it this way: “It never occurs to Rosie that someone won’t take her call. She’s fearless.”

An Accidental Activist

Butler grew up in Hattiesburg, MS in the 1960s, picking cotton as a child and “dragging that bag every day for 50 cents a bale.” Her grandfather, she remembers, always insisted that the man who weighed the cotton give the money directly to Rosie. It was his way of teaching her the value of a dollar. Coupled with her extraordinary good looks, that learned shrewdness has served her well ever since.

When she was old enough to compete in the Miss Hattiesburg contest, it hardly registered that African-American girls did not enter. Rosie was the first. She doesn’t describe it in terms of activism. She just didn’t see herself as particularly different than the other pretty girls in Hattiesburg, who encouraged her.

Competing in that beauty pageant was a simple, if bold, move that helped to set the course of a remarkable life. When pictures from the competition appeared in the local paper, she caught the attention Milton Waldoff, owner of Waldoff’s Department Store, then a fashion landmark in Hattiesburg. Waldoff was looking to bring Fashion Fair, a cosmetics line designed for African-American women, to Hattiesburg. He thought Butler had the looks to make the line succeed in his store.

He offered her the job. Within couple of years, the late publisher John H. Johnson—who owned Fashion Fair, Ebony and Jet magazines and whose wife, Eunice, was the mastermind behind the Ebony Fashion Fair traveling fashion show—tapped her to promote the cosmetics on a national level and join the tour.

She was so excited and focused on the job—in no small part because she had no college degree to fall back on—that she ignored some disturbing health warnings, particularly unexplained bouts of weakness. She was busy loving the limelight, jet–setting and the chance to meet glamorous people around the word. But soon another, more complicated chapter of her life began. She was suffering from lung problems, experiencing symptoms she essentially tried to ignore. Then one day she collapsed while making an appearance for in a Cleveland department store. The surreal scene involved none other than Liberace, who happened to be in the store, calling for emergency help. “I stayed in a coma for about four days,” Rosie says. After she came to, doctors there diagnosed sarcoidosis.

But soon enough Rosie was back to work on the tour, even as she spent time in and out of emergency rooms. She was also taking medications that could make her look bloated, a deal breaker on the modeling circuit. “Sometimes I just didn’t take it,” she says. “I wanted to be able to do my job.

“Regardless of my health issues, I worked very hard for the Johnsons,” she continues. “This was a once–in–a–lifetime opportunity. I was getting to travel all over the world and meet all these wonderful people. This was something dreams were made of.”

When Butler’s first son Christopher was born in 1979, she decided to give her modeling career a rest and make a transition into selling real estate in Jackson, MS, where she met her now-former husband. Butler already had a proven record selling cosmetics; now it became clear she could probably sell anything she put her mind to. “I was a million-dollar producer right away,” she says. “I was selling houses like hotcakes, and I realized I had a knack for being able to present a product and get people to buy into it.”

Then Butler, who had moved to Birmingham with her young family, received devastating news: on top of her lung disease she had contracted hepatitis B, through a blood transfusion. She now had the unwanted distinction of being one of only a handful of people in the United States with hepatitis B and sarcoidosis at the same time. By 1990 the prognosis was grim—she wasn’t expected to live another year.

Worse, she learned that her hepatitis had passed to her second son, Joshua. Doctors doubted Josh would ever see his 16th birthday. She was devastated.

Butler’s voice grows quiet as she describes what felt like a dual death sentence. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, you can either sit here and wallow in this, or you can do something.’”

Soon after, Butler, lying sick in bed, saw a commercial featuring country singer Naomi Judd talking about her own battle with hepatitis. At the end a number appeared for the American Lung Foundation. Butler picked up the phone and dialed. “I ended up talking with none other than the founder, Thelma Theil. She told me she’d been wanting to make inroads in Alabama for a long time.”

She and Theil began organizing here, bringing together people who were well versed in other health causes but had never discussed hepatitis, which wasn’t a particularly popular rallying cry at that time.

D. Paul Jones, then president of Compass Bancshares, signed on right away to help. “I don’t remember exactly how we met, but she had such an enthusiastic and winning way about her,” Jones says. “She’s not the kind of person who just wishes things would happen. She’s one of those that makes things happen.” Jones provided Butler with office space, supplies and other support. That became ground zero for the first Alabama chapter of the Liver Foundation.

Working with volunteers and the local medical community to spread awareness about liver research, treatment and prevention, she quickly honed in on one goal that hit close to home: vaccination.

While a vaccine had existed for a few years, at the time “Children were just not getting the immunization they should” to prevent the disease from transmitting from mothers to sons. Butler knew this immunization would have prevented her own son from contracting hepatitis. “I wanted to do something to make sure other families didn’t have to go through what we were going through.” Butler’s work helped to make it standard practice for all babies in Alabama—not just those born to carrier mothers—to be vaccinated. Through her growing list of powerful contacts and advocates, she was part of a group that helped persuade insurance companies to begin covering expensive treatments for patients such as herself (and including herself), which had previously been denied.

Meanwhile, she also wanted to help battle the stigma that hepatitis seemed to carry. Though viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver disease in Alabama, “It was like people were ashamed of it,” she says. “I knew that I had contracted it through a blood transfusion in the 1970s, when blood was not as well screened as it is today, and through no fault of my own.” As Butler and her colleagues began organizing fundraisers and other activities, she noticed some of that stigma beginning to fade. Even some physicians approached her to confide that they, too, were privately living with the disease. “They would tell me, Rosie, you’re very brave to talk about this.”

A Different Turn in the Limelight

Butler was now serving on the national board for the Liver Foundation, a position that gave her reason to reconnect with her former employer, John Johnson. “We were having our annual meeting in Chicago, where Johnson Publishing Company is located, and called him up,” Butler says. “I told him the CEO and founder of the American Liver Foundation would like to come and visit with him about donating some space in Ebony. So many blacks are affected by liver disease.” Johnson agreed to donate a full–page ad in the magazine for a year, and also wrote a story about Butler and her work for the foundation.

Butler’s new schedule had her once again traveling the country, rubbing elbows with such prominent activists as Ted Turner, Jane Fonda and the late Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry—“such a wonderful man,” Butler gushes. “Wonderful,” “beautiful” and “dear, close friend” are terms Butler uses to describe a great many of those she has met over the years, whether they are celebrities, local partners in the fundraising trenches, or her own doctors. And the admiration goes both ways. Friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances describe her variously as tough, tenacious, beautiful and kind. “I asked her once, ‘Were you ever a model?’” recalls former Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins. “And of course, she was. Rosie is beautiful all the way through, and in spite of her own health issues, she has so much compassion for others. She just draws people to her.”

Says Cherry Starr, Bart’s wife, who got to know her while planning the UAB Liver Center event to honor Bart, “She is just a great lady. She has been an outstanding mother through very difficult times. I admire her so much.”

Hard to Say No

Butler’s most recent fund raising efforts have involved the Children’s Hospital of Alabama and its 762,000-square-foot, 12-story acute care expansion facility to be known as the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children. Once again, one specific aspect of the project hit close to home for Butler: its new, on-site pediatric transplant unit, scheduled to open in 2012.

Once again, Rosie had been called upon for help at a moment when her own health was precarious and her energy waning. She waited almost a year before agreeing to take on the project. Then, an opportunity seemed to fall in her lap: Unbeknownst to her, her own mother was close friends with Grammy-winning country singer Craig Wiseman. Within minutes she had Wiseman on the phone, and he agreed to appear at a benefit for the hospital. (The event is planned for October 4 at WorkPlay. )

Butler was back in full-throttle fund raising mode. Yet she soon faced another setback, a diagnosis of breast cancer. If anything has come close to grounding the unstoppable Rosie Butler, this might have been it: “I remember the doctor talking, and it was as if someone had stuffed plugs in my ears,” she says. “I saw the mouth moving but heard nothing.”

She recently underwent a grueling round of treatments and is praying for the best. For the time being, she has bounced back into her work, in spite of now facing three severe, independent health threats. “I don’t know what the future holds. But (throughout cancer treatments), every day I got up and tried to tell myself to be a good patient, because whatever I was going through, I was sitting there in the waiting room with others who were going through the same thing.”

Butler is not afraid to say she saw herself—and her son, particularly Josh, who inherited her liver disease—through her fellow cancer patients, with a complex mix of empathy and encouragement. “People don’t know my pain,” she says. “But I raised both of my sons to understand that no one can change your circumstances, so why would you want them to feel pity and sorry for you? That’s not what it’s about. It’s about letting light show through you so you can affect someone else. You don’t know what they’re going through, either. I can only hope to set an example that you can help people who want to live.

“People often see doctors and say, well they make money, they’re just trying to get patients in and out,” she continues. “Among the doctors I know, I doubt that. I’ve seen doctors cry with me, and they care so deeply they can say, ‘Rosie, what can you do to help our patients—beyond the hospitals, making a difference in their lives, so they can be productive and not just succumb to their circumstances? I try to help them see from the side of a patient who’s going through it—a patient with the potential to be a strong partner in his or her treatment, understand the doctor can’t do it alone.”

Don Logan, a retired Time Inc. CEO, philanthropist, and current owner of the Birmingham Barons baseball team among other ventures, says he has known and collaborated with Butler for years. “She’s asked me on a number of occasions to be involved in some of the activities she has been involved in,” he says. “She’s smart, hardworking and goodhearted.” Like others, Logan reflects that Butler’s contagious personality and raise-above-the-circumstances attitude have made it hard for him to walk away even if he wanted to. “I think it’s her and her personality, that behind that nice smile and the nice person that she is, she’s also relentless. She doesn’t take ‘No’ easily.”

Least of all from herself.

5 Responses to “A Force of Nature”

  1. Milton Waldoff says:

    Rosie Butler is an outstanding young lady, always has been and even more so now! We are fortunate to have people with this level of character, determination, work ethic, sense of purpose and talent who make life better for their having contributed these high qualities to our lives.

    God Bless You Rosie!

  2. Ronnel Blackmon says:

    Ms. Rosie Butler is a beautiful, inspiring, and educational tool that will prove to anyone and everyone what success can come from. After knowing Ms. Rosie for a few years and seeing this article I am so honored to be associated with such an intentional woman. She has that “it” factor that we all want and even though she has gone through much hardship in her life, the purpose, and mission that she has shines brighter and brighter as she goes out of her way to do more for others.

    I Aspire to Inspire like you, Thank you Rosie!

  3. I met Rosie after church one Sunday, after having preached a sermon on the subject “Why we must not quit”. She approached me and said “thank you for an inspiring sermon”. We exchange nicities and had a wonderful time chatting about our mutual interest in philanthropic causes. She asked me to read her story that was published in B-Metro and perhaps we could talk further and unpack our stories. Having read Rosie,s story, I too am blessed to know of her courage and that winners in life never quit and quitters never win! Rosie, you are a winner and your life,s message and journey is truly etched with the hand print of God,s grace and truth! Thanks B-Metro for your work in sharing this positive, real, outstanding and inspiring story of perseverance. My hat,s off to “Lady Rosie” for you have seize the moment of life! Thanks Gerald……

  4. I have enjoyed reading this article and learning more about the beautiful Rosie Butler.
    I do know she is an inspiring woman of incredible strength and determination. . You would never know by looking at Ms. Butler, what pain or health issues she may be experiencing at that moment.
    She always has that radiant smile.
    I had the pleasure to work with Rosie Butler on a fundraising for UAB liver Center, and met Dr Bloomer and the volunteers for that successful event.
    Thank you for writing this article to honor Ms. Butler,
    and shine the light not only on her beauty, but her kindness and passion for making a change in the world.
    Thank you……..

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