BEVERLY — As his high school graduation ceremony dragged on through official speaker after official speaker, Fred Butler got a bit restless. Fairly typical behavior for a high school student, but Butler is far from a typical high schooler. He is 106 years old.
On Monday, Beverly High School presented Butler with an honorary degree, something he was never able to achieve in the classroom. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade to help support his mother and five younger siblings.
When he was finally presented with his diploma, which was placed in his lap as he sat in a wheelchair, Butler ran his frail fingers over it, and his face showed he was overcome with emotion.
“I want to thank everybody who is responsible for this,” he said.
Butler was born in Dorchester in 1906 (the same year as the man who invented the television), and grew up in Beverly. As a youth, he worked mornings in a small print shop and then went to school in the afternoon. When he was offered a full-time position at the print shop, he chose to take it and left school before his freshman year.
It was a decision born of necessity, but one that bothered him his entire life.
“He talked about it a lot,” said Cathy Butler, a relative who helped spearhead the drive to get the diploma. “He regretted not having his diploma, but he stands for all the values a high school community hopes to represent.”
‘I never expected to get anything like that. I really appreciate it.’
When she informed him that he was finally going to get his high school degree, his first comment was “I didn’t earn it.”
For the ceremony in the high school library, Butler was wheeled in to the sounds of a string quartet as several of his classmates — the teenaged members of the class of 2013 — stood in the back and cheered. Unlike Butler, they behaved during the entire ceremony.
It was an important day for Butler’s family, who have long marveled at all he has seen in life. He was already 34 years old when he was drafted into the US Army in 1941 to fight in World War II, and he served in England and the Philippines until the end of the war in 1945. He did not marry until he was 41, but still had 65 years with his wife, who died in September at age 93. The couple had five children, all of whom graduated from Beverly High School, and the family has grown to include great-great-grandchildren.
Today, Butler lives in a nursing home, but one of his favorite things to do is take walks through town, mentally, said his daughter, Susan Calabro. “Many nights, I’ll go sit with him and he’ll take me on a walk around Beverly, tell me what used to be there, what life was like. I think he knows as much about this town’s history as anyone.”
Butler spent much of his career working for the Beverly Water Department and retired in 1975, the day his youngest son, Jim, graduated from high school. “And I’m 55,” Jim said. “Some of my friends have already passed away.”
Jim Butler said it’s easy to take his father for granted, because he has been around for so long. “But then he’ll start talking about horse-and-buggies, and you realize he actually lived through that, it’s truly amazing.”
Jim’s son, Ian, is a sophomore at Beverly High School, and he said that when he tells his friends that his grandfather is 106, their response is simple: “They don’t believe me.”
Fred Butler’s lack of education made it something he stressed with his children and grandchildren. He uses a magnifying glass to read the honor roll lists in the local paper, and chides any of his descendants who are not on it. (If they are, he’s known to slip them a couple of bucks.)
After posing for photos with his family and some of his new classmates, Butler took a moment and looked again at the diploma in his lap, opened the embossed case to read his name on the page.
“I never expected to get anything like that,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.