With Van Ness Butler, Jr.'s passing on Feb. 14, the community lost the visionary behind what made South Walton what it is today. That feeling was not just the conclusion of one person, but of many, as The Sun spoke to several long-time residents.
“No one person in all of Walton County had as great an impact on the county as Van Ness Butler,” said longtime friend Malcolm Patterson. “We lost a piece of history that there is no way to replace."
A pioneer family
Butler's grandfather, W.H. Butler, came to Walton County in 1906.
In 1919, W.H. Butler acquired property in Grayton Beach in exchange for Inlet Beach property now known as Camp Helen. The Grayton Beach property he acquired included almost all of what is now known as Grayton Beach.
W.H. Butler first built a house in Point Washington before beginning to build in Grayton. Butler's father and mother, Van R. and Helen Butler, lived in Grayton when they married in 1929. They were school teachers.
Van Ness was born in 1930. After the birth of their children, the family moved back to Point Washington.
In 1937 the Butlers built the old Butler Store in Grayton, which became the community's gathering place years before it would become the iconic Red Bar restaurant.
Van Ness married and raised his family here when few knew about the beauty of the area's beaches.
‘Friend, an advisor, a counselor’
To say that Butler had a stake in the county would be an understatement. Not one to sit back and just enjoy what he had, Butler took an active role in the direction South Walton would take and what it would end up looking like.
In 1988, Butler's boyhood friend, Patterson was living in Destin and had just sold his boat business when he saw in the paper a small ad for someone to head a new tourism division in Walton County. Butler was a driving force behind the creation of the TDC, said Patterson. As the TDC's first executive director, Patterson worked closely with Butler over the next decade. He credits Butler's influence with much of the TDC's accomplishments during the ensuing years.
Patterson said he was mandated to use half of the available revenue for advertisement and promoting South Walton, and the other half was dedicated to beach improvements.
"Up until that time, no money was spent on beaches," said Patterson.
Another goal Patterson was entrusted with was acquisition of all property along the beach that did not already belong to the county for dune walkovers and beach accesses. One of the beach accesses, located between Seaside and WaterColor, is named for Butler.
"He was a friend first, but also a visionary,” said Patterson. “Through direction from Van Ness we put garbage collection bags on the beach and we hired beach maintenance staff."
In addition, Patterson credits Butler with securing grants to build the bike paths along 30A.
"That was totally his vision and probably his most significant one," he said.
Butler was also instrumental in helping secure and develop the corner of U.S. Highways 98 and 331 for TDC offices. He also served as a Walton County Commissioner for one term and on the TDC board for several years.
As Patterson looks back on the life of his friend, he said if only one word could be used to describe Van Ness Butler it would be "visionary."
"He could see things no one else could see," said Patterson. "He had intimate knowledge of the county that few people had. He was a friend, an advisor, a counselor to those of us who knew him. The county lost someone who knew more about the county and more people in the county than anyone. He remembered names. I relied on him.”
Butler also played a key role in the founding of Seaside.
"Van Ness was a real friend to Daryl and me when we first landed on the shores of Grayton," said Seaside founder Robert Davis. "We stayed in one of his small cottages until he persuaded the Bullard family to rent us their beach house for 11 months each year. He taught us how to set crab traps, how to cast a net for mullet and he took me out to fish for grouper and snapper.
"He was also an outstanding leader of our community and was able to act as a bridge between our progressive ideas and the natural conservatism of the people he had grown up with. His service on the South Walton Conservation and Development Trust was essential to the adoption of much of the plan that took two years of hard work...
Davis predicted there will be many proposals to name roads, bridges, etc., after Butler. His vote is for the bike path along 30A, a project Butler was responsible for proposing and persuading the county to fund and implement.
"We will all miss him," said Davis.
‘A quiet mediator’
Another man who knew Butler well was Tom McGee.
"He was a dear friend," said McGee, who knew Butler for 18 years. "I cherish the time I spent with him."
Butler and McGee collaborated on creating The Camel Club, a club for recovering alcoholics that they built on Hewett Road more than a decade ago.
If McGee had to choose one word to describe Butler, he said it would be "generous."
"He had a great empathy for others," said McGee.
He believes Butler's greatest lasting legacy will be the many things he did for the community.
"He was a very humble guy and did not make a big deal about all he did — the bike path, the bridges, the state park, and most people did not realize all that he did. He was a very quiet mediator and he had the respect of state officials.”
A community mourns
Long-time resident Bobby Johnson said what he loved about Butler was that he was always so approachable. "When you spoke to him he actually listened to what you were saying. I learned from him that you can lead without being loud. He had a gentle heart and impacted our community in ways most will never comprehend. I would say that calling him a friend was an honor and a part of South Walton will never be the same."
Didon Comer said she will always remember him as the unofficial “mayor of Grayton Beach.”
Historian Hardy Jackson said "Grayton is what it is because of him,"
David Bludworth, a longtime Grayton Beach resident, said Van Ness was a guard on the Walton High School football team his father coached. "He was steady, dependable, and a team player. Van Ness will be remembered as a public servant who sought to help others and protect the environment for posterity. I can remember seeing him catching pompano when no one else seemed to be getting a bite."
DeLene Sholes moved to South Walton in 1970. "He was a great friend and help," she said. "He would call me when he had mullet. I loved it but Tommy (her husband) hated it. So, Van Ness would clean them for me. He was really special."
"He was a wonderful man, and an old friend," said Ken Little. "His legacy will be the deep and abiding love he had for Walton County. He did so much for the county. He was always willing to listen."
"He was so kind to those he met," said Chick Huettel. "When I first arrived here 25 years ago, he made it a point to come by our store and welcome us."