Wendell Butler was a giant of Roanoke government, education, religious faith and medical care — a “gentle giant,” according to people who knew him.
“He was just a pillar of integrity, honesty and care,” said Wanda Walters, one of Butler’s daughters.
Butler, who died Thursday at the age of 96, was a former Roanoke vice mayor who served as the first Black chairman of the Roanoke School Board as well as on numerous other boards and commissions.
Plus, he was a well-known dentist who served predominantly northwest Roanoke families for decades while working in his office on 11th Street Northwest.
“He was everybody’s dentist,” Walters said.
Butler died less than three weeks after the death of his wife of 71 years, Susie Butler, who was also 96. Both Butlers died from complications of COVID-19, the family said.
Wendell Butler was a native Texan who studied at Howard University, where he met Susie, a standout athlete and dancer. In 1953, four years after they married, the Butlers moved with their young family to Roanoke, close to Susie’s hometown of Covington.
As legal racial segregation crumbled throughout Virginia, Butler became more involved with public service. In 1968, he was appointed to the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority's board of commissioners. Two years later, the Roanoke City Council appointed him to the school board, where he served for 10 years and became the first African American chair in 1976.
Running as a Democrat, he won a seat on the city council in 1980, becoming just the second Black member in the city's history after Noel Taylor, and he served two years as vice mayor. He did not run for reelection, but the council would not leave him alone. He was appointed to fill empty council seats twice. In 1996, he was appointed to council to finish the term of John Edwards, who had just been elected to the Virginia Senate. In 2000, he was appointed following the death of Councilman Jim Trout.
“I told them that I was willing to serve," Butler said after his 2000 appointment. At the time, he was 75 and had retired from dentistry.
“He was a wonderful father and a mentor to many,” his daughter said.
One of those whom he mentored is Anita Price. He gently suggested back in the 1980s — while she sat in his dentist chair and he worked on her teeth — that she should run for city council.
“He saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” said Price, who at the time was teaching home economics at Patrick Henry High School. She eventually took Butler’s advice and was elected to the Roanoke City Council in 2008. She is stepping down when her third straight four-year term ends Dec. 31.
“Dr. Butler was such a quiet gentle giant,” Price said. “He was soft-spoken, but what he said was very powerful.”
Butler grew up in Carthage, Texas, where his family celebrated Juneteenth, the holiday when Black Texans learned of the Civil War’s end in June 1865. He lived to see Juneteenth become an official Virginia state holiday this year.
Denied entrance to attend the University of Texas because of the color of his skin, Butler received money for tuition and transportation from UT that allowed him to attend Howard in Washington, D.C.
He also served in the U.S. Air Force, where he rose to the rank of captain.
“It never occurred to him that he would not be able to do what he set his mind to,” said his daughter Karen McKinney.
After arriving in Roanoke, the Butlers joined First Baptist Church in the Gainsboro neighborhood, where Butler would remain a member for 67 years and teach Sunday school. As a trustee of the church, he held many administrative roles, including chairing the committee that oversaw construction of the current church building on Wells Avenue.
Virginia governors Chuck Robb and Douglas Wilder appointed Butler to various statewide boards and agencies, including the Southern Regional Education Board and the Virginia Water Control Board. He also chaired a task force in the early 1990s that studied the city’s at-large election system, which is still in place.
He was often chosen for these roles because of his ability to accept divergent views and bring people together. Walters said that her father was an avid news watcher who tuned into several networks, just to see the different perspectives.