Full Circle––Winding down toward retirement in June 2008, Butler paused for a photo outside the principal’s office at Tate Elementary. She began at the school as a first grader in 1946 and finished her career there as a school counselor 62 years later.
Honored historian, community leader, lifelong mentor Mimi Jo Butler died last Thursday, March 17, after a brave battle against cancer. Born in 1940, Butler turned 70 in September. Her tireless work over a lifetime favorably impacted the greater community and many individuals she befriended, making the loss of her influence something that will continue to be felt county-wide.
Reared in Pickens County, Butler began school at Tate's marble schoolhouse.
"We started Tate School together in 1946 and quickly became like sisters," recalled lifelong friend, Barbara Cline. With all of her public education acquired at Tate (the schoolhouse housed both a primary and high school then), Butler completed her first two years of college at Young Harris and gained a double major in history and sociology from Emory University.
She compiled a 30-year career as a school counselor (five years in Cobb County; 25 in Cherokee) before she retired and returned to Pickens County, later to serve the school system here as a counselor part-time.
Before Butler became a school counselor, she was a social worker right after college. "I was a DFACS worker for three [years] first," Butler said in a 2008 Progress interview. "Being a high school counselor looked easy after that. I was a protective service worker. I did do some adoptions also. I had two kids on my case load die the same summer in the same foster home––one of SIDS and the other of cancer.
"I still remain in contact with about five of the foster parents I worked with from that long time ago," she said.
That became a pattern for life as Butler continued to interact with people whose lives she had touched in a former time. She maintained an influential bond over years and decades.
To the larger community, Butler is maybe best remembered as an activist for historic preservation. A pillar of the local Marble Valley Historical Society, Butler played the major role in converting Jasper's Old Jail into a working and welcoming history museum.
"When she started, it was just nothing," said Ruth Wall, who became acquainted with Butler through the Historical Society and grew to become a close friend. "She was a walking encyclopedia about the history of this county," Wall said. "And she was a stickler for the truth."
If something could not be substantiated, Butler did not want it told for history, Wall said. Articles by Butler on Pickens County history often appeared in the pages of this newspaper.
Whether pushing for preservation or advocating for school kids, Butler was known as an irresistible force. "There wasn't anything that she couldn't do anything about, I don't guess," Wall laughed.
"She's always been very vivacious all her life," Barbara Cline remembered, "and anything she believed in she worked in it wholeheartedly." Butler was the kind to roll up her sleeves and pitch into a task, working just as hard as the people she had come alongside to help, Cline said.
"She only knew one speed and that was 'Go'," Butler's daughter Ellen stated.
The Rev. Rob Bruce, Butler's pastor at Tate United Methodist Church, related how Butler chaired the building committee when he arrived mid-project to lead the church. Organized and efficient, Butler quickly brought the pastor up to speed on how the work progressed.
Eulogizing Butler, Bruce said, "You know, someone made the comment yesterday, 'Maybe heaven is now the most organized place in the cosmos [with Butler aboard]'." The congregation gathered together for Butler's funeral (standing room only) chuckled in agreement with Bruce's comment.
He characterized Butler as a person of loyalty, commitment and steadfast love. "She was a strong woman," Bruce said. "Had the energy of ten people. She would whirl through places like the Tasmanian Devil." Again his audience responded in gentle laughter.
"She was opinionated," Bruce said. "She was Mimi Jo. There will never be another one like her, and I will miss her terribly."
"She was a great second mother to many of us in this room today," he said.
Even after her career as a school counselor ended, Butler kept in touch with many of the students and families she had worked with as a counselor. Friend Ruth Wall said she and Butler were seldom ever together in a public place without encountering some former student who would come up and speak to Mimi Jo.
In many cases, Butler's contact as a counselor turned into a friendship for life. In some cases, Butler provided benevolence from her own resources to former students in need as adults, Wall said. Butler tried to keep that a secret, Wall added.
"She never wanted recognition for herself," Wall said. "She did so much, but she didn't let people know what she was doing."
The Pickens County Retired Teachers Association recognized Butler for her selfless service last December when they bestowed their Golden Deed Award. Speaking to that assembly then, Butler said, “When I came back to Pickens in 2000, I was not prepared for the poverty that had happened here in Pickens County since I left.
“I mentored whole families that didn't have running water or electricity. Every day in education is an opportunity for something to happen. Education affords you an opportunity to give kids opportunities they never would have had. Working with kids is fun.”
In a eulogy for her mother, Butler's daughter Ellen said that in her last days Mimi Jo typed a message to her family. "My life has been touched by so many," it began and referred to a passage penned by Bob Patton, another educator: "Just yesterday I said I've taught them all. I've taught the colored and the not so colored. I've taught the young and the not so young. I've taught the disciplined and the not so disciplined.
"I've taught the clever and the not so clever. I've taught the washed and the not so washed. But as I look back today, I was taught by them all."
"I will miss the kids," Butler told the Progress in 2008 as she faced retirement a second time from school counseling. "I will not miss the bureaucracy of some things."
"You cannot lose your perspective because some things don't go the way they should go," she stated. "I think that's what being a social worker first taught me. You've got to realize that if you lose your perspective about it, you can't help anybody. You've gotta be able to realize when you've done all you can, you've done all you can do."
It is the balance she tried to keep as an advocate, knowing some painful situations go unanswered despite all efforts.
"Kids can't help being dealt not a fair hand through no fault of their own," Butler said. "My philosophy is if you're not willing to help somebody, then you live a very dull life."
Warren can be reached at