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Walt Butler has worn many hats in Ceres
Walt Butler
Walt Butler looks back fondly on his days as a volunteer firefighter with the Ceres Fire Department and holds his assistant chief bucket hat. However, he quit in 1990 when the department went to paid staff. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Walt Butler is one of those rare individuals who has spent his entire life in Ceres while continuing to invest in multi-faceted ways to give back.

Since coming to the Courier nearly 35 years ago, I’ve chatted casually with Walt Butler countless times at community events where the local veterans’ groups were involved – Street Faire parades, Memorial Day ceremonies and funerals where the American Legion Honor Guard has fired off 21-gun salutes. It dawned on me last week that for somebody who has been so involved in the community I had never gotten to know Walt Butler III.

Walt greeted me at the door of his modest Casa Verde Drive on Thursday afternoon a little grayer than I remember but then again I hadn’t seen him in a while since the pandemic. For the next two hours I got to know Walt – and meet his wife, Patricia “Pat,” for possibly first time. She assured me that we had met sometime in my career but 35 years has a way of erasing brief connections from the memory bank. Pat remained seated in the kitchen, sitting behind a walker, as she listened quietly as I lobbed questions to Walt and he would answer, at times in circuitous fashion.

In setting up the interview I had asked Walt to hunt down a younger photo of himself so the first thing Walt did after I seated myself in his living room was hand me a framed portrait from his days in the U.S. Navy. It was the perfect segue into his military background which formed the basis for his life of service to veterans.

Walt’s parents, Walt and Evelyn Butler were living in Ceres as they prepared for their first child. Walt Butler III was born August 10, 1947 in a downtown Modesto hospital on Tenth Street. After it was razed, Walt senior, who had served in the Navy during World War II, teased his son that he was born in a used car lot.

Friends lost to war

When I shared that our birthdays were closed together – mine being August 17 – Walt was surprised and said that was also the birthday of his best friend growing up in Ceres on Sixth Street, Brian Kent McGar.

I was very familiar with the name and I could see the emotion welling up in Walt. As he mentioned how McGar’s name is engraved on the Veterans Memorial at Whitmore Park, I could see him fighting to swallow a lump that momentarily stopped his speech. Another good friend of Walt’s who was killed in the war in Vietnam, Billy Ray Owens – his name is on the same memorial – grew up close to the Butlers on Mary Street. Owens, who was a door gunner on a helicopter, became the first Ceres boy to die in the Asian War, on Aug. 22, 1966.

McGar, who was ambushed as part of a five-man patrol, was reported missing in action May 31, 1967. His remains wouldn’t return to American soil until 1997 when he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Butler had difficulty getting out the words about a cenotaph for Brian placed at the grave of his father Edgar at the Turlock cemetery.

“The family let me go back to the service and the Legion and the post office union letter carriers helped pay the expenses to send me back there,” said Butler.

At the time of his friend’s demise, Walt was serving in the Navy and his parents shielded him of the news of McGar’s MIA status.

“He was a lot like me – goofy as hell,” Walt described McGar. “I remember him and I would get into it every once in a while. We were in his front yard playing flag football or something and I was a little too rough. So we went round and round. I finally convinced him he didn’t want to fight with me. But he was probably three, four inches taller than me. He was a tall skinny guy; I was a short skinny guy.”

School days

Walt and his friends attended Whitmore Elementary School – the brick school on Lawrence Street that later became the CUSD offices and burned in 1993 – before graduating into the junior high school, which is now Walter White Elementary School.

While attending Ceres High School he played a year of baseball.

“I was going to play basketball my freshman year and I wasn’t tall enough so they cut me right away so I went in the wrestling room and wrestled for four years varsity.”

He graduated in 1965.

I asked what it was like growing up in Ceres.

“Wild and funny and fun.”

He remembers the 1961 Ceres Paint Festival where hundreds turned out to spruce up downtown with murals and splashes of donated paint from Fuller Paints.

“Seems like there was always something going on, something to do.”

Downtown offered more than today, including weekend matinees at the movie theater on Fourth Street. Hendy’s Drive-In (near Fourth and 99 and later wiped out by freeway construction) was a popular hang-up with its carhops and popular shakes and burgers.

“That place was so cool.”

Memories of downtown

Downtown was where most Ceres residents, who preferred not to go to Modesto, shopped, with Florence’s Dress Shop being a must-stop for the ladies, including Walt’s mother. In those days, before credit cards were so freely dispensed by companies, many of the small businesses offered charge accounts since most people were honorable and paid their bills.

Walt remembers going to the Fourth Street movie house to see John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima.

“The house was just packed solid with people and I sat in the aisle. Now I look back and I go, ‘Oh my God, that violated the fire codes big time.’ There was two and three wide sitting on the floor in the walk aisles.”

He also remembered the same packed audience watching Old Yeller – the 1957 movie that made him cry.

Ceres was a safe place to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s. The closest thing to danger, he said, was Halloween shenanigans.

“A lot of eggs got busted. I busted a few.”

Butler hasn’t forgotten the great tanker explosion of Oct. 1, 1958. A truck driver had locked up his big rig pulling a gasoline tanker at 99 and Fourth Street, overturning and exploding right where the Shell station is today.

“I went down and watched. I stood in front of – at the time it was a five-and-dime store and now it’s some kind of tap room – and it was exciting. There was a lot of fire. Everybody came from everywhere and brought cans of foam. The biggest fear at the time was there was a gas station there.”

Butler reminds seeing the badly charred remains of the truck driver being carried off on a stretcher.

Most of the groceries that fed Ceres – and the Butlers – came from the first Richland Market at Richland and Evans. Store owner Gus Pallios, he recalled, offered a credit account. Walt’s dad, who worked for Safeway, became friends with the Pallioses.

The Butler household also consisted of three sisters, Christina and Cynthia “Cindy” and Nanette.

The Navy & jobs

Walt was instilled with a strong work ethic when as a junior high student he began selling TV Guides door to door. Six months later he was in high school and quit the sales job to work evenings cleaning up the Foster Freeze lot on Whitmore Avenue. He also had a Modesto Bee newspaper route in Ceres.

In the summer of 1965, Butler received a letter from the Naval Reserve office in Modesto and was told that if he joined he would be obligated for six years of naval service. He signed up and in June 1966 he reported to Treasure Island for three weeks of training for his two-year assignment.

“They have you fill out a ‘Dream Sheet’ of what assignments you want. I wanted a destroyer, a destroyer escort or a cruiser. Those were my three choices. I ended up on an aircraft carrier.”

Butler opted to be trained for a postal clerk job, which proved to be a very busy job – and laid the foundation for his life in Ceres after the Navy. His home would be aboard the USS Hornet which would carry him to Japan, the Aleutian Islands and all over the Pacific Ocean. In 1966 the ship was dispatched to Hawaii to recover an unmanned NASA space capsule in the years leading up to the first moon shot in 1969.

“On the morning there was probably a third of the crew on the flight deck looking for this capsule.”

The men searched the skies in vain for three parachutes when word came that it had already splashed down earlier about 15 minutes away and out of sight. The mighty ship steered toward it and Butler remembers seeing it floating and being plucked out of the water by a crane bolted to the flight deck.

Love and marriage

Homeported in Long Beach, for leave he’d often drive home to Ceres. Walt decided to attend a Saturday dance at a Modesto skating rink where his eye caught a young lady. On his walk to the concession stand to buy a Coke, he walked behind Pat and gave her a little pat on her fanny.

“I almost got my head knocked off. I ducked.”

He smiled and left her alone before approaching her for a dance to which Pat replied, “Okay but keep your hands to yourself.”

The two enjoyed the rest of the evening. He got a good night kiss when he drove Pat home to her house of E. Granger Avenue in Modesto.

The next day he was back on his ship. The two began a long period of exchanging letters leading up to their wedding in Reno. Walt remembered the date – October 9 – but the year escaped both him and Pat. As he shuffled off to another room to retrieve the year (1971), the sound of a tune from a passing ice cream truck came through the open screen door while Pat explained that her memory is strained because of a rare brain disease she suffers.

Walt reappeared to explain that her “brain is dying and she has two years – that’s the prognosis. There’s no treatment for it.”

The bluntness of his statement shocked me and I didn’t know what to say.

Walt faces his own medical problems that include Type II diabetes and hyperthyroidism. He fought the VA for four years to get some disability compensation relating to his exposure to Agent Orange from the time he went outdoors after his plane landed for refueling in Chu Lai in South Vietnam.

Walt became an instant stepfather to Pat’s son, Jerry, born in June 1968. The couple then had a daughter, Autumn Gose, who is an administrative assistant at Walter White Elementary School. Their son-in-law Paul Gose is the principal of the continuation high school in Hughson. Granddaughter Katie enjoys a full-ride softball scholarship to Iowa State University.

Walt goes postal

After Walt got out of the service he took a civil service exam for a postal job but didn’t score high enough to land a job immediately so he went to work for Varco Pruden, a Turlock metal construction firm. He was part of a crew building the Peters Pontiac building in Lodi. At the end of one work day Butler and others jammed into a van and, being smaller, Walt crawled into the back to the cargo area for the ride home. At Van Allen and Mariposa roads a woman ran a stop sign while making a left turn in front of the van, hitting it nearly head-on. The crash killed one man and sent Walt flying forward.

Walt spent 10 days in traction in Memorial Hospital Ceres.

During that time Walt was serving as a Ceres volunteer firefighter, a job he held from June 1969 to October 1990.

Running to the fire station to jump on a fire engine and head out to fight fires or tend to car wrecks was something Walt enjoyed. Some of darker moments stand out, such as the time when their wedding anniversary celebration was interrupted by a grisly double-fatal crash on northbound Highway 99 caused when a drunk driver entered the freeway from the wrong direction and hit another car head-on. Walt looked into one passenger compartment which had been pierced by a dislodged engine hood that took off the top of the driver’s head. He warned other firefighters to not look but one who did ended up puking.

To deal with such tragedies a firefighter has to “compartmentalize” things, he said.

Butler nearly cries as he speaks about being on scene of the death of Lloyd Kee during a heart attack. 

In 1974, Ceres Postmaster John Shamblin offered him a part-time flexible clerk job at the Ceres Post Office, then located where the library is today. It was only two hours a day but Walt took it but would help Walt and Pat pay the $250 per month mortgage payment on their $12,500 house.

When a letter carrier retired in 1975 or 1976 Walt had full-time work. He retired 32 years later.

Walt tendered his resignation as a volunteer firefighter about six months after the department became a paid staff department.

“The paid staff just thought they were God’s gift to whatever and had no use for volunteers,” said Butler. “I bumped heads a couple of times. They didn’t respect the volunteers and wanted us to do the dirty work.”

He dropped his gear onto the desk of Public Safety Director Pete Peterson who was a loss for words other than “thank you for your service.”

In his retirement years Walt has been passionate about the Ceres Post of the American Legion, of which he has served as commander four times for a combined 14 years. He continues to volunteer countless hours to give deceased veterans a military service as part of the Honor Guard.

“Veterans are owed,” said Butler. “They earned that right to have that done for them.”

young Walt Butler
A very young Walt Butler III when he was a postal carrier aboard the USS Hornet. - photo by Contributed to the Courier
Butler in 2016
Walt Butler, seen here on May 7, 2016 at the Ceres Street Faire Parade, often participates in the Honor Guard as a member of the American Legion. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo