Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19 at age 62 of pancreatic cancer.
I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t really prepared for the news that Steve Buttry was really gone. The man who seemingly bounced back from everything – be it layoffs, professional disappointments, cancer (twice) – wasn’t bouncing back this time.
Steve had so many friends in the journalism world, each with their own treasured memories of and debts owed to a man who had a bottomless capacity to give. I’m no different. I owe Steve for nearly everything I have.
If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be working in PR or marketing in Ohio after being laid off from my last job as a journalist several years ago. Even aside from the obvious affect on my career trajectory, I also think I’d be a fundamentally different person if it weren’t for Steve (and not for the better).
I first met Steve the same way a lot of people did – via Twitter. After a long career as a reporter and editor, Steve had reinvented himself as a social media trainer and digital journalism thought leader. I had started following him because of his blog. I was social media editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time, and mostly figuring out what that role was and the impact I could have if I only had a voice. He was a life raft for my flagging enthusiasm about journalism. We had struck up a correspondence over our shared challenges in teaching social media to unwilling newsrooms.
When I heard he was hired on at an emerging new media startup I had been closely following in DC, I sent him a direct message to ask him to keep me in mind when he got there. And he did.
Just today I read over our DM correspondence from those few months – and even then, he gave more than he ever had to. He gave me tips on how to apply, ideas of how to best pitch the job I wanted, and above all he gave me an interview. I must have applied for 100 social media and journalism jobs in the “big cities” and had never once got as much as a reply before. That was all Steve.
In the spring of 2010, Steve hired me on as social media producer at what would eventually become TBD in Washington, DC. That job, the people I worked with, the move to the coast from Ohio – all of it was the beginning of a new life for me. It put me on a map I didn’t even know existed. More than every awesome perk that came out of that job, the best (though it took me years to realize it) was learning how to live a good life from Steve.
When I first moved to DC, I felt so much less experienced, ambitious and worldly than everyone around me. But not Steve. He lived for his time with his family and friends – and I noticed early on that he spent so much of his time doing favors for others – inside and outside our company. He had mastered the art of the network, with friends in seemingly every city, with lives he touched everywhere on his travels. I can’t adequately explain how good it was for me back then to have a fellow Midwesterner showing me every day that it was possible to excel in that world of the “coastal elite” and not lose touch with your personal values.
As a newsroom leader in that environment, he seemed to savor capturing lightning in a bottle. At our brainstorming meetings for the community engagement team, he’d encourage us on even the most far-flung of ideas. He was always the one best at teasing out something tangible from the flights of fancy.
A few years later, Steve provided me with more life-changing chances. One was inviting me to co-teach a social journalism class with him at Georgetown University – which I would go on to do for four terms (and which piqued my interest in finishing my career in academia – like Steve). He hooked me up with my first few gigs training other journalists in using digital and social tools – which became something of a second career for me. He also was instrumental in hiring me on at Digital First Media – giving me a way out of the social media world and into my first job as a manager.
In six years, Steve granted me more favors than any one person deserves. And the most amazing part is that all of what he did for me, to him, probably wasn’t even that big of a deal because he did it all of the time. How many times in his long career did Steve Buttry do someone a favor? Be it speaking to a class, giving a recommendation, passing on a job opportunity, making a introduction, judging for awards, teaching newsrooms, giving rides, sticking up for an employee or coworker…he did it all of the time. Literally every day – right up to the end of his life.
There’s no easy way to repay a debt that large, save for continuing the work.
Last month, I sent him the following in a message exchange that would end up being our last:
I want you to know this: It is because of your influence that I never leave a tweet, Facebook message, voicemail or email from a stranger unanswered. I’ll never say no to a young (or not-so-young) journalist who reaches out to me for advice, help, ideas or feedback. I never refuse a journalism professor who asks me to speak to their class. I always take the meeting, even at the most stressful of times, because you did it for me and it made all of the difference.
The least I can do, that any of us can do, is to live the best kind of life possible – the way Steve did. We take the meeting. We get on the flights (and tweet about the delays). We teach. We give favors big and small. We are there for others – when the time comes, they are there for us.
Thanks for the lessons, Steve – and thanks to Mimi and the rest of the family for sharing him with an entire grateful industry for so many years.