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Haverford College

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Ed Butler has been sterilizing the biology department's lab equipment (among other responsibilities) for 48 years.
Ed Butler has been sterilizing the biology department's lab equipment (among other responsibilities) for 48 years.

What's Kept Ed Butler at Haverford for 48 Years?

John “Ed” Butler Sr. would like just one thing from the professors whose lab equipment he washes and sterilizes on a daily basis: for them to please include their initials on each piece of glassware, each tube, each burner.

“Everything looks alike after it’s washed,” he points out.

But this is just one small quibble; he says he has enormously enjoyed his 48-year career as a biology department supervisor, working on behalf of appreciative faculty and students. In fact, Butler is the College’s longest-serving current employee: Since June 3, 1960, he has mixed solutions like bacto agar (used in preparing microbiological culture media) and kept equipment sparkling clean and bacteria-free (always sterilize at 221 degrees, he says, and allow 40 minutes for the entire process including drying). He hopes to make it to a half-century at Haverford, but he doesn’t want a party: “I want a grand for every year I’ve been here,” he laughs.

Butler was a few years out of high school when he started at Haverford. He learned of the biology department job opening from the man who would become his first boss here, Lou Coursey (for whom the road leading to the visitors’ parking lot is named). What have kept him here for so many years, he says, are the people, especially former professors of biology Ariel Loewy, Irving Finger, and Mel Santer, who trained, mentored and befriended him. Loewy, in fact, helped Butler move from North Philadelphia to his current home in Upper Chichester early in his career.

“They treat me real nice here,” says Butler, who remembers a time when one of the biology department’s grants expired and they could not afford to pay him, and the College assumed responsibility for his salary. “I’ve been blessed.”

As much as Butler enjoys his colleagues and friends, he also appreciates the autonomy the job affords him. “I enjoy what I’m doing, and there’s no one to bother me,” he says.

He’s seen plenty of changes in his time; he recalls when classes were smaller than they are today, and, of course, all-male. His transition from Sharpless Hall to the new KINSC was smooth—although, he says, “This sterilizer isn’t as reliable as the old one.”

He has touched the lives of too many students to name, including several who have gone on to higher positions at Haverford. “Ed Butler was my lab assistant my sophomore year, and was the only reason I got through the course!” says Dean of the College Greg Kannerstein ’63. “He could see me struggling but was very tactful and helpful at all times so I didn’t feel too bad about my problems! Later on, when I was Director of Athletics, Ed was (and is) one of the most faithful users of the weight room and Fitness Center, which probably explains how he has stayed so even-tempered after all these years at Haverford. He’s one of those folks the College cannot do without!”

Butler also remembers chatting with Professor of Biology Jenni Punt when she was a Bryn Mawr undergraduate taking classes at Haverford; he’d often run into her early in the morning, before most of the campus had stirred.  “I am sure I was a ‘lab rat’ back then (and haven’t changed much), and Ed Butler was one of the hearts and souls of a very special department,” says Punt. “I don’t think I had any true clue of how much he did, but knew he was simply a mainstay. Now I know that he is a reason our labs run smoothly, and also know that my colleagues at other larger institutions envy us our Ed. He is unusually dedicated—and inspires the same dedication in us.”

Outside of Haverford, Butler lives quietly with his wife of 48 years, Marlene (they married shortly after he started at Haverford), and dotes on his five children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; many of their photos adorn his desk. Two of his sons, Kevin and Steve, once worked for Haverford’s housekeeping staff as high school students. Butler is also active as a freemason in his lodge and sings in his church choir: “One of the things in life I really enjoy doing is singing.”

What will he do, one wonders, if and when he retires? His answer is quick and to-the-point: “Go out of my mind!” He won't be the only one.

“It’s hard to imagine the biology department without Ed Butler here,” says Jenni Punt, “and he is truly ageless.”

-Brenna McBride

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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