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Stephen F. Austin State University

Norma Butler

Biography

Norma Butler was born in Bryan, Texas in 1948. She had seven siblings and attended Kemp High School. In 1979, Butler moved to East Texas and shortly thereafter began working for the Deep East Texas Council of Government. Butler then changed jobs, working for Charlie Wilson in his district office as a caseworker for Veterans Affairs.

Interview Notes

Interviewer's Name: Randi B. Cox.

Interview Date and Location: The interview was conducted on March 25, 2011, at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Context Notes: Interview and transcription completed in conjunction with the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas (Spring 2011).

Closer to the end of the interview the video tape has to be changed with a new one. At another point during the interview Cox bumps something in the background and says excuse me. Throughout the interview Butler sniffs, because of her allergies.

Tapes and Interview Record: The original recordings of the interview and a full transcript are held by the East Texas Research Center, R. W. Steen Library, Stephen F. Austin state University, Nacogdoches, Texas.

Transcription Notes: The policy of the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project has been to eliminate false starts and crutch words from transcriptions when determined not to affect the meaning and flow of the spoken word. Obviously, and admittedly, this is a subjective endeavor and all care was taken to maintain the integrity of the interview.

The interviewer Randi B. Cox is identified as COX. Norma Butler is identified as BUTLER.

Transcript

Begin Interview

COX: This is Randi Cox. It is Friday, March 25, 2001 [2011] and I am interviewing Norma Butler for the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project sponsored by and held at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mrs. Butler worked with Charlie Wilson starting in 1982. Is that correct?

BUTLER: Right.

COX: 1982 as part of the Veterans' Administration as a case worker. So, Mrs. Butler I'd like to begin by establishing some background information. What year were you born, and where did you grow up?

BUTLER: I was born in 1948, and I grew up in Bryan, Texas.

COX: Could you tell me? Oh, I'm sorry.

BUTLER: I have seven brothers and sisters, four boys and three girls which means four girls and four boys, and I attended Kemp High School.

COX: Could you tell me a little bit about your parents?

BUTLER: My mother was a single parent for many years. I have three siblings that are older than I am, which was by my mom's first husband, and she married later on in life and I have other siblings. I grew up really on a farm about a hundred acres, and the community is called Wixon Creek.

COX: How did you come to get involved with politics? How did you come to know Charlie Wilson?

BUTLER: It was a blessing in disguise [Butler laughs]. I moved to East Texas . . . I think in '79. And I was a recipient on Deep East Texas Council of Government. And later they hired me, and I was the housing coordinator for many years there. And, [then District Manager and later Wilson's Administrative Assistant in Washington, D.C.] Peyton Walters called me and asked me if I would be interested in working for the Congressman, and of course that was just unimaginable. And I said yes. And then as time moved on, I realized . . . oh, he has to be elected every two years. And I think this was the year he was going into probably one of the most difficult campaigns, and it wasn't difficult. Not for Charlie. But word had gone around that he may not win. So I changed my mind, and said no. Peyton visited me again, and I said yes, and then I changed my mind and said no again [Butler laughs]. And finally one day I was working, and I got this phone call, and this voice . . . this great big voice . . . was on the other end of the phone and said, "What will it take for you to come and work for me?" And it all happened because of a very good friend, Delores Wheeler who also worked for DETCOG [Deep East Texas Council of Government], had suggested that he call me.

COX: And what did you do for the Deep East Texas Council of Government?

BUTLER: I was the housing coordinator, which meant that I had counselors under me that inspect units. I approved applications and filed monthly reports to the HUD [Housing and Urban Development; federal agency that oversees home mortgage lending practices].

COX: And when you came to work for Charlie's campaign?

BUTLER: Well, it was his office, you know.

COX: For the main office

BUTLER: For the main office.

COX: Not for the re-election campaign.

BUTLER: Right. He was just in re-election, but he hired me as a staff member. And that, to me, said a lot about Charlie. He believed in giving people a chance. He was a people person. Most people would have said, would have shied away, you know. But he at one point was the president of DETCOG, Deep East Texas Council of Governments, so he knew very much what it stood for and what they did. And for him to just hire me, who had been a recipient, was just unimaginable, as I said.

COX: Do you think that that, could you expand on that a little bit that that idea of the fact that you had both been a recipient and an employee of that, did that reflect his philosophy of government? Why do you think he picked you as somebody that he wanted to have working for him?

BUTLER: Well, I would like to say that it was for my ability and character, but I'm sure he understood or thought that I would do a good job. But Charlie was just a person that would allow you to be you. You know, the responsibilities were great, but he let you decide how to do the tasks. There were rules set in place by Congress itself, but he didn't stand over you. He just told you what he wanted to see and allowed you to implement it your own way. So I think he believed in people.

COX: And when you went to work for him, what did you do at first?

BUTLER: Well, at first it was a lot of phone calls and learning the type of calls that the office received, which blew my mind. I had no idea that so many people would call their congressman for almost anything, to a cat up in a tree, to trying to get a divorce, or to concerning federal issues, which is really what we could do is assist or. We tried to make sure that the government worked for the people. So it was just mind blowing to get the calls. I remember one call I got, probably the second day that I was there, and this man said to me, "Young lady, I know the boy. I put shoes on his feet." So, you know, I went . . . pardon me this is a morning that sinuses [Butler sniffs], but I went into Peyton's office and said, "I have a man on the phone that says he [Butler laughs] he put shoes on Charlie's feet. He knows Charlie, and he wants to talk to Charlie." So, Peyton said to me then, that, "You're going to get some of all kinds of phone calls claiming all kinds of things, and you just have to kind of deal with them at your own discretion." So that was the beginning of seeing the volumes and the different kinds of calls that the office received, and everyone wanted to speak to Charlie.

COX: And you also worked in the Veterans, working with Veterans Affairs. Is that correct?

BUTLER: Yes. At, first when I was hired, my title, I believe, was "Minority Assistant," which meant that I had to go into all of the counties, the communities throughout the district, and be the person between the black constituents and Charlie . . . because not a whole lot at that point used the office, you know, or had an idea. They knew Charlie's voting record and they felt like he was their friend in Washington, but he wanted the constituents of the community to know the kind of work that the office offered to them. So that was one of my jobs at first. And I just kind of happened to work into that position as VA [Veterans Affairs] caseworker. Having the background of my husband, who served in the military; my dad retired, my stepfather retired. So I guess I was a little partial in talking to veterans, and they said since you like and seem to be able to deal with them, why don't you take the VA entity of the casework.

COX: With the position in minority relations, which Charlie has a real reputation for being one of the first Texas Democrats to be a supporter of civil rights, means he has a real reputation for that.

BUTLER: Yes.

COX: Was that a tough thing for him when he was in elections? It's a pretty conservative part of the country as far as race goes. Did he ever run into trouble with that with his constituents?

BUTLER: I don't think so. I think it was natural to him. It wasn't anything to really think about. Before me there was a [East Texas civil rights] giant called Inez Tims who worked for Charlie [beginning in 1973 when Wilson won his first term in federal office], and I remember Inez saying to me that Charlie was seeking the state position and called upon him for help, and Mr. Tims, I call a giant because there's so many stories that he could share, and he shared quite a few. But one, he told me that he told Charlie that "If you want my support, you be at Lufkin industries at three o'clock when all of the men come through that door, and you shake everyone's hand, black, white, blue, green." And he said Charlie didn't hesitate. He was right there. And I think that was the beginning of him easing the heartbeat in the black community, or winning, at that point because Mr. Tims was very trustworthy.

COX: So that helped facilitate any suspicions, which people might of had that he was doing it for political gain.

BUTLER: Yes.

COX: What kind of concerns did African American constituents have?

BUTLER: Well, they had many. They were concerned about their jobs in the eighties when all of the layoffs occurred. And of course the issues that they have, that they had at that time, was the voting right issues of the bill having to come up every ten years, and of course they would like to see it just a permanent thing. And they wanted Charlie to bring money into the community that they would have an equal opportunity of securing. Inez Tims tells the story about how he had to sue East Texas banks and courthouses and so forth and how Charlie backed him in doing that because it was the right thing to do [Tims filed suit against the City of Lufkin and Angelina County in 1977 to establish single-member voting districts].

COX: Were there any specific moments in your position as minority, doing minority relations that really stand out that you're particularly proud of?

BUTLER: Oh, well, I think one of the things that I was really able to do was just open the door. Let them know what Charlie stood for. Let them know, at that time Congressman Leland [George Thomas "Mickey" Leland, US Representative, Democrat, from Texas (1979-1989) and Head of the Congressional Black Caucus] was in Congress, and I was very proud to always be able to match Charlie's voting records with Congressman Leland. And we took a lot of pride in doing that because we felt that Charlie was going to vote in their best interests.

COX: Well, let's talk a little bit then about your work in Veterans Affairs. I know Charlie was involved in having a new veterans center [Charlie Wilson Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic] built in Lufkin. Were you there at the time that that went on?

BUTLER: Um-hm.

COX: Could you talk a little bit about that?

BUTLER: Well, as you know, they wanted the veteran clinic to be in Tyler. And Charlie went to bat right away to secure it in Lufkin, and we did a lot of VA casework prior to that. And all, well, the number one casework in the office would be Social Security, and of course VA would be next. And he was able to tell quite a few veterans that their benefits were approved because of his involvement in their case.

COX: Did having the center in Lufkin as opposed to Tyler, did that affect the economy in Lufkin at all? Did it create jobs?

BUTLER: Of course, of course it did, many jobs. As far as I understand, Crockett people came to work. And the service that the clinic afforded to veterans as far as Tyler County, to Hemphill, even Rusk. So the clinic was a good thing for East Texas. I think at that time East Texas probably had a high retirement population, especially in Woodville, Texas, and they were having to go all the way into Houston to get just simple things checked. So the clinic was very good for East Texas. I don't think we had an idea of how many veterans were really in the back woods. As you know the clinic soon outgrew itself, but it was a very good shot. It was a good shot in East Texas arms.

COX: Do you by any chance remember how many veterans were served in the clinic in the first years that it was open?

BUTLER: Oh, no. I don't. I don't remember, but I do remember that they were concerned about . . . being able to serve them all. They soon had to get an offsite clinic. It was more than they anticipated.

COX: Could you describe a, when you were working in veterans affairs, could you describe a typical day for you?

BUTLER: Yes [laughter]. Of course we had a walk-in policy, and if anyone visited the office, certainly they were going to have a chance to speak to someone about their issue. So a lot of veterans would visit us after visiting the clinic. If they found, you know, things wonderful, they wanted to tell us. If they were displeased, they also wanted to come over and tell us. So in the morning, it would easily be at least three walk-ins on top of constant phone calls, and there was always something to do. Always something to do.

COX: So you worked with mostly people who came into the office, wanted to talk about their experience at the clinic, maybe their status as veterans, making sure that their paperwork with the VA was processed properly.

BUTLER: Um-hm.

COX: That sort of thing.

BUTLER: And of course they would call trying to get benefits or needing DD214. Many of the veterans were unable to get their records from National Personnel Records Center. They've had a couple of fires there and a lot of times they would write asking for the records, and they'd get a response, "Well, if your records were here during this period of time, chances are they burned." But they would not say they did burn, you know. So, if they didn't have anyone, a lot of times to pursue, then they were unable to get their records.

COX: What is a DD214?

BUTLER: Discharge papers.

COX: Was there anyone that you helped, any particular cases from the Veterans Affairs that really stand out for you? Anybody that you recall that you were particularly proud of? [Bumping noise in background] Excuse me.

BUTLER: There were quite a few. One gentleman we were unable to prove that he was in the war or that he was injured.

COX: In Vietnam?

BUTLER: And we had tried and tried and tried with National Personnel Records Center, and we could not get any way from them. And his wife at the time, he wrote her letters saying what had happened to him, so we were able to use those, his letter to his wife to get his benefits. At the very end of Charlie's tenure, there was a gentleman out in Allentown [eight miles north of Lufkin, Texas], and he had been trying for many years to get his records . . . his medals that he earned, and they kept coming back saying they couldn't find anything, and we were able to get them for him, and he was so delighted. Shortly after that he expired. But I was so glad that he was able to get his records. There were many cases that Charlie was able to write and say well, "You should receive a check of $150,000; $148,000; $126,000." where we had been assisting them in getting their benefits for many years, and once the case was really looked at, it was turned around. It's a lot of cases. Charlie has had a great impact on a lot of people's lives in East Texas. So very many.

COX: So you feel like in a lot of ways your role was to do some of that leg work to facilitate what Charlie wanted to do.

BUTLER: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We couldn't do a thing without his name.

COX: So, I think, cause a lot of people when they think about what their congressman does, they think about, he's far away. He's in Washington. How often did you see him? How often, what was the relationship between the Washington staff and the Lufkin staff?

BUTLER: Very close. But we did have a challenge to get them to understand the distance in the cities [laughter]. We did. We finally had to take the scheduling and do the scheduling in Texas here, but the Washington office and the district office worked very closely together. Charlie, we may have visited once a month, sometimes more. But you could always pick up the phone and call him and tell him about an experience or someone wanted him to know this in particular. We were always doing that. Charlie had a mobile office. When I started work, I heard it referred to as the "Good Time Charlie Machine." You know. But it was an office. It had no beds in it. Chairs, we, Charlie had it . . . staged as an office, and it went around twice a year to each county.

COX: Was it a mobile home?

BUTLER: It was a mobile home for travel, and we would set up each place maybe two hours, and the constituents would come on. And we would hear from them whatever, and that was a way of getting the people in rural East Texas to know of the work that he was doing. Each box holder I believe received a certificate saying, a card, saying that Charlie Wilson's mobile office would be in your area at the courthouse from 9:30 to 11:00. You know. And of course people would come on and they would think, "I came to see Charlie. Charlie told me to come out here, and I'm here to see Charlie." And once they'd get there, of course, we would help them with, sometimes they just wanted to visit. And they really thought, many of them, that Charlie really would be there. But, we would bring in quite a bit of casework from a day out in the district like that, and that was just a brainstorm of Charlie getting services to his community.

COX: So it wasn't like a town hall meeting where he would go out and meet with people. It was an opportunity for you to go out, the caseworkers to go out . . .

BUTLER: Right.

COX: . . . and meet with people.

BUTLER: Um-hm.

COX: So, I'm curious, when you did that, did white constituents, did you ever feel like they responded differently to you as an African American woman than they did to white caseworkers?

BUTLER: Maybe at first, but I think they soon, because even in Vidor [in Orange, Southeast Texas], I went to Vidor [Vidor has had a reputation of being a sundown town where African Americans were excluded from being present after dark; Vidor is also known for its large Ku Klux Klan presence]. We would use senior citizens, maybe two would volunteer, and two or three office members, and one day we were in Vidor, and of course this senior citizen that was volunteering that day knew nothing about Vidor. And you would want to get off the bus and walk around and stretch your legs. And one day we were parked in Vidor, and he and I were just kind of standing outside the door, and he said, "Well, come on, Norma. Let's walk over here." And I said, "Well, no, I don't think I will. You go ahead, and I'll stay on the bus with Peyton." He kept on, and he kept insisting that I walk with him. And then finally Peyton says, "Well, I don't think that would be a very good idea." We all laughed after telling him about Vidor. But even on Vidor, even in Vidor, they received me well. They wouldn't wait for a white caseworker to be free. If I didn't have a constituent, they would step right up and tell me what they wanted. And the Grand Dragon [a leadership position of the Ku Klux Klan] would visit and make us feel welcome [Butler chuckles].

COX: What year was this? The story that you told about the volunteer that wanted to go for a walk. You remember what year that was?

BUTLER: What year? It was probably in '86.

COX: So, one question then is that notion of negotiating that work space as an African American. But I think historians would also be interested in negotiating that work space as a woman. In the early eighties, was there, how many women were there in the office? What was, and did they play professional roles or were they secretaries?

BUTLER: I think a little bit of. You couldn't be, and there's no such thing in that office as just a secretary because the secretary was very busy, knowledgeable, and could get the job done. When I started to work for Charlie, I think he had maybe one male in the office, and that was Peyton. The rest were women . . . and I think it was a total of three of us. I made the third. So we, I'm not sure of anyone's degree, but I know that we all felt equally important in doing the job that was entrusted to us. And it made you work hard because Charlie felt that you could do it.

COX: Are there things, when you were working for him, are there things that you wish that you had accomplished that you were not able to?

BUTLER: Well, yeah. You would like to help as many people as you can. You would, I would like to be able to say every case I opened, I was able to secure their benefits. But that's not so. The budget at that time was, it was almost a sure thing if you filed a case with VA you were going to be denied. And I think we could kind of say the same thing for Social Security. It was just not a good time. When I first started working, we had a lot of suicides going on because . . . they were cut off their Social Security without an appeal right that Congress later implemented, but once you cut someone off of their Social Security, and they have nothing else coming in and has a family, you know, that was devastating. So, it was just not a good time.

COX: This was in the early eighties?

BUTLER: Yes. I think, I think it was just a period that the government entity was not friendly, and maybe because of all of the cutbacks, it had to be that way. But it sure left you with a lot of veterans that you could not get approved for one thing or another. And then you started seeing the cuts from the medical entity where they would, at one point, fix your mouth - your teeth. Then they stopped doing that.

COX: Then you would lose your benefits in the middle of a procedure with something not quite done.

BUTLER: Yeah. Well, it may not have been that drastic, but for those that thought that they should get dental or at one point had dental furnished, you know, you kind of look for that in the future, and then when you go back, you must have been service connected for the reason that you need dental work. So just seeing things like that happen and not being able to change them. That would be something that bothered you that you just couldn't get everybody what they thought they wanted or justly needed.

COX: Is there anything, you know, we're coming closer to the end of our time, but I want to make sure you have the opportunity to tell any stories about Charlie that you want to make sure are out there on the record. Is there anything in particular that you remember about Charlie that you want to make sure that we know about?

BUTLER: Well, no. Not, not really other than he was a great guy. He was a people person. And I remember one of our little communities . . . had a flooding problem. It was in Shelbyville, Shelby County. And this community was predominantly black. When it rained so the emergency vehicles couldn't get there, the buses couldn't get down into the community. The children would have to go up to the main street to catch the bus, and they tried so very hard to get funds to correct that, and they couldn't. And one night . . . Charlie was invited, and we wanted to take quite a few of his constituents from the black community. Just kind of a fun trip, but a knowledgeable, an educational trip, too. That was the night that we kind of sat around on the bus, and we started thinking about Charlie's contribution to the community, and the song "Let the Work I Done," I think was one of Inez's favorite songs. So they started kicking around, "Let the work I done speak for me." Old hymn. And we had quite a few singers on that bus. You would think we were holding church [laughter]. And Charlie sits there with a drink in his hand and quite a few people around, and we're drinking. And that was just such a fun experience. He really liked hearing singing and, especially, old hymnals like that. Charlie wasn't a religious person, but I think he really enjoyed that song "Let the work I've done speak for me." That was, and of course when we got to the meeting, wasn't much that we could do because that was state, Texas, but Charlie was able to give them some directions on how to go by getting the funds to them. And I just remember that night because I think that's the last night that several of the people had a chance to be with Charlie because a couple of them died at that point, shortly after that rather. I have a lot of good memories. I don't have a lot of Wilson stories, maybe one. But I'm sure others will tell that [Butler laughs].

COX: Always important to get multiple points of view so if you . . .

BUTLER: He was just such a fun person to be with and to work for. There's a story . . . he was due in Woodville and coming out of Houston. You know we had to drive quite fast most of the time cause you're always running late. And the driver was driving pretty fast. It was Sean [Davis] and the police stopped [Butler chuckles]. Charlie thought that he would help Sean out a little bit by telling him, the officer, who he was and what was going on. The officer didn't appreciate that. He told Charlie, "Sir, if you don't get back on the bus, I'm going to arrest you" [laughter]. So, it was so funny to see Charlie, "Oh. Okay." But he thought that was so funny, he got on the phone, called the people in Tyler County in Woodville, which is where we were going, and told them the story and, of course, you couldn't beat him laughing at himself, you know. So when we got there, that was the ice-breaker. Everybody heard the story, and it was passed through all the crowd. And Charlie had more fun with that than anybody [Butler laughs]. But you know, he just, I don't think I've ever seen him mad, you know, angry. Upset maybe, but he was always in control and just laughed it off in most cases.

COX: Well, what do you think motivated him? Why do you think he was in politics? Was it about ideas? Was it about solving problems? What, why do you think he did what he did?

BUTLER: I think he had a desire to help people. And of course, you had to have ideas, and you had to solve problems. But I really think he was just a great humanitarian.

COX: Now, one of the big ideas of the 1980s, you hear Ronald Reagan saying, "Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem." Why do you think Charlie disagreed with that? I mean, he must have if he thinks that being in part of government is a way that he can solve problems, right?

BUTLER: Yes, but even Reagan was in government when he made that statement.

COX: Well, that's true.

BUTLER: And it may be problems, and I think Charlie had an idea of solving the problems. Definitely he had some issues that were close to him, and one of them that I heard him say a lot was before S. S. I., which is Supplementary Security Income, that old people had nothing to look forward to. That once they became of age where they could no longer work their farm, they went and sat on the porch to wait to die. And for a nation of people to do that, to have no hopes, no dreams, he knew the need for S. S. I. cause many Americans wasn't privileged at that point to even work except for themselves. I don't remember my granddad working for anyone except for himself. So when he got of age where he couldn't work anymore, S.S. I. was there for him. And of course it's different from Social Security, but if the government didn't care about his constituents, what happened to all of the seniors back in those days? Government may be the problem in many instances, but we need our government to help us in many instances, too. And I think Charlie thought he could help. And he did. There were big layoffs in the eighties . . . Lufkin Industries, on the ship channel [in Houston],and he was able to secure government contracts for those companies, and they were able to hire people that they had laid off that had been with them for many years. Not everyone was hired back but quite a few. So he had an idea of how to make things work, and he did what he could to make them work for the good of the people.

[The Camera Operator comments, "Okay, just I got to exchange tapes here."]

BUTLER: How are we doing?

COX: Well, we're coming up actually to the end of our time. It's about twenty-five after eleven, so . . . [Background noise of tape being changed]

COX: It's about time for me to take you back. We can stay a little longer if there are other things that you would like to talk about. But . . . the only other thing that I'm kind of curious about that maybe we haven't talked about is how Charlie fit within the rest of the Texas Democratic Party. The Democratic Party's undergoing a big transformation at that time. Some are more conservative than others. Some are more liberal. The southern Democratic Party is changing. So I'm wondering maybe how well Charlie got along with other Texas Democrats.

BUTLER: I think he did pretty good. If he had not, I don't think would have been able to be as effective as he was. So whether they liked him or embraced his politics, he certainly had their respect.

COX: Maybe on the basis of personality, not policy agreement.

BUTLER: Yes. Yes. And been able to get the job done.

COX: Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about? Like I said we're kind of close to the end of the time, so I want to make sure that you have a chance to . . .

BUTLER: [Butler sighs] No. One thing I noticed as I traveled with him . . . whatever he believed about an issue, he would be very honest with you, and tell them why he believes what he does. And what he said to the Rotary Club, he said to the N. A. A. C. P. [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. It was not different. He did not change his views or change his speech according to the crowd. He was very honest and straightforward. And if you didn't like it, you could tell him why. But he was going to tell you what he felt and why he felt it - what he believed in.

COX: Well, I think we could all use a bit more of that from our politicians [Butler laughs]. Well, I want to thank you very much, Mrs. Butler. We'll be certainly very glad to add your recollections to the archive [East Texas Research Center at Stephen F. Austin State University].

BUTLER: Okay, and you will edit and fix it up, right?

COX: You will [receive a copy to review] [tape is shut off].

End Interview