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Marguerite “Margo” Butler, activist and founder of Evanston Area Black Catholics, dies at 79

Marguerite M. 'Margo' Butler

Marguerite M. "Margo" Butler

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Updated: November 15, 2013 6:19AM

Some say there are three kinds of people, those who make things happen, those who watch, and those who are left to wonder.

As one ever determined to have some control over what was happening in her life, Marguerite “Margo” M. Butler was never content to watch things happen — and she always knew exactly what was happening, and had strong opinions about it.

Ms. Butler, a community activist who founded Evanston Area Black Catholics and was a longtime force in the Office for Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Chicago, died Oct. 5 of a massive heart attack at her Evanston home. She was 79.

“To say she was feisty is a understatement. She challenged me to be better,” said Andrew Lyke, director of the Office for Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “She generously stepped in to assist and take the lead in our common work in the Church. It was easy to go deep with Margo because there was nothing superficial about her. The depth of her work matched that of her love. I will miss our conversations and sharing of faith experiences.”

Ms. Butler was born in Chicago on Aug. 4, 1934, the only child of Russell Anderson and Mary Louise Higgins Anderson. A lifelong Evanstonian, she was baptized Roman Catholic at St. Mary’s Church. Like her mother before her, she attended the Illinois Technical School for Colored Girls, a Catholic boarding school at 49th & Prairie Ave. then run by the Irish nuns of the Sisters of Good Shepherd in Chicago.

She always recalled that the school was sensitive to and respectful of its students’ ethnicity, telling Notre Dame Magazine in a Winter 2011-12 article: “I probably learned more about black history in that school than anywhere else I’ve been. Those women were on target. They wanted to prepare us as best they could for the world they knew we would go into. We were taught black history and black poems. We learned about the [Harlem] Renaissance.”

A 1951 Evanston Township High School graduate, Ms. Butler went on to attend the former Evanston Business College, then Northwestern University as a part-time student, before attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then Roosevelt University. She married James E. “Lefty” Butler in 1952.

“She was my best friend,” said her husband of 61 years, with whom she had three sons. The couple resided in the same two-story, Georgian brick home in Evanston they’d bought upon marrying, and Ms. Butler’s kitchen table was always a haven bustling with countless community and parish activities and meetings of black Catholics.

Ms. Butler spent nine and a half years working for the federal government at the Fort Sheridan U.S. Army post; for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its Cold Regions Research & Engineering Lab; and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She then spent 18 years in corporate America, as an administrative specialist at IBM; an administrative manager for Continental Airlines; and a regional consultant for Xerox Corp., during which time she attended the former Xerox Document University in Leesburg, Va. She also worked for the diversity advocacy group, Chicago United; and spent 10 years in the medical field, working at Evanston Hospital and Baxter Labs, and managing a doctors’ medical practice. In latter years, she would switch gears again, spending another 10 years selling residential real estate in Evanston and on the North Shore.

She was a community dynamo, family and friends say, with service work spanning years of volunteerism in Evanston schools, where she was a longtime PTA member at the former Skiles Junior High School, King Lab School, and ETHS. A passionate advocate for diversity, she served on the North Shore Committee for an Urban League, and on the Executive Committee for the NAACP. She also sat on the boards of the United Way and YWCA; and was a former member of the Auxiliary Board of VFW Snell Post #7186.

“She was an amazing mother and an amazing example to us,” said her youngest son, Russell Butler.

But of all her community work, Ms. Butler’s passion was her church. She was, as she described herself in the Notre Dame article, just like her paternal grandmother, “one of those people who is there ‘whenever they open the church doors.’”

Butler was ever willing to tell her story of falling away from the church after high school, returning after marrying and sending her children to Catholic schools, and falling away again in 1968, when on the Sunday after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she attended mass at her then parish.

“Nobody,” she said in the Notre Dame article, “said a word about Dr. King’s assassination. So when we left that Sunday, I never went back.”

But she did go back, years later, determined to address what she described in that article as “that invisibility, that non-recognition.” She founded the Evanston Area Black Catholics [EABC] in 1998, bringing together black Catholics from North Shore communities to ensure African-American culture was melded into the Catholic experience.

“Margo believed that if you felt marginalized in an institution, you should not be content to sit on the margins, but contribute your own efforts to make it better,” said EABC member Yvonne Smith, a friend of over two decades. “She was a mover and a shaker. Hers is a void that can’t be easily filled.”

The Office for Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Chicago presented Ms. Butler the Father Augustus Tolton St. Nicholas Parish Award in 1999, for outstanding service and contributions to the black Catholic community of Metropolitan Chicago. A year before, she’d received the Sister Thea Bowman Award from the Holy Angels Knights of St. Peter Claver Auxiliary for her efforts. In 2002, the Office for Black Catholics bestowed on her the Dr. Nathan Jones Award for her continuing work to promote involvement and enrichment of the faith for black Catholics within the Archdiocese.

She was secretary of the planning committee for the Archdiocese’ Black Catholic Convocation held in Chicago in 2000; editor of its proceedings book; and local co-chair of the National Black Catholic Congress IX held in Chicago in 2002. She was secretary of the ongoing Black Catholic Convocation Implementation Committee.

At St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, where she was an active member some 40-plus years, she founded the church’s 15-year-old Kwanzaa celebration, annually drawing black Catholics from across the region. She served as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and minister of care. She was the first chairperson of the church’s Race & Ethnic Unity Committee; a member of the Parish Pastoral Council for years and chairperson for two years; member of its Finance Council since 2004; and member of its Welcoming and Bereavement committees.

“She was a committed and beloved parishioner,” said St. Nicholas pastor William Tkachuk, who covered the seat she always sat in at church with kinte cloth the day after she passed. “She will be dearly missed and remembered as a leader; always there with wisdom, advice and a helping hand when needed.”

Ms. Butler enjoyed reading, cooking and traveling the world, visiting most of the United States, including Alaska. She visited Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico; Amsterdam, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Tahiti. Her lifelong dream to visit Africa was fulfilled just this summer, with a visit to Ghana.

Besides her husband and youngest son, survivors include two older sons, Michael and James; five grandchildren, Barbara Steele, Karli Butler, Nina Butler, James Williams and Gary Dubose; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral mass will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Nicholas Church, 806 Ridge Ave., in Evanston, with visitation preceding, at 9 a.m. Interment will be Monday at 10 a.m. at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 Gross Point Rd., in Skokie.

Twitter: @maudlynei

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