For Madison and Donna Butler, this year’s AIDS Walk will perhaps be their most difficult, yet rewarding one.
Donna Butler, Erick Butler’s ex-wife, and Madison, their daughter, are walking with Team Erick this year in honor of Butler, who passed away Dec. 18, 2015 (His obituary is at http://goo.gl/ppnM2p).
Erick Butler was a consummate volunteer with the annual AIDS Walk and he had formed a corporate team through GE Finance, which is now known as Synchrony Financial. “It’s always been a big part of his life, and he was involved in it at GE,” said Madison Butler. “We were kind of bouncing the idea around together, and then a couple of our family friends came up with the idea, too, and that inspired us that this was a good idea. … As soon as other people started getting interested, we said, ‘OK, we got this!’”
Donna said she thought about merging their team with Synchrony, but decided that Team Erick would need its own T-shirt design.
“I wanted to have a shirt just for Erick. So, of course, we wanted to do the pink flamingo thing, since that was so him. He had a pink flamingo tattoo on his shoulder. He got it the day we found that we were expecting Madison. He said he felt very manly and went out and got a pink flamingo tattoo,” she said with a laugh. “We wanted to stand out in the crowd, just like he did.”
Madison said that “Synchrony has their own page with his picture on it. They are working in memory of him, and people who work for Synchrony and maybe don’t know we have a team are donating money for AIDS Walk. Between the two of our groups, we are still raising money in his honor.”
Donna Butler said that they had met with Michael Lintecum and Terry Newell and that they planned to have a memorial flag for Erick.
“I think Madison is going to be on stage and say a few words about her dad,” she said.
Several years ago, Terry Newell began the tradition of AIDS Walk Memorial flags that each bear the name of someone who has passed away from AIDS. In addition to the memorial service they hold at Unity on the Plaza, a procession of volunteers lead the walk each year carrying the beautiful white memorial flags.
Madison did the eulogy for her father at his funeral and she said she is not concerned about being too emotional on stage.
“It’s going to be all right,” she said confidently.
Donna Butler said, “Erick kind of lived two separate lives. He lived the life with us, and then he lived the Missie B’s life. There were times when they intersected and times when they didn’t.”
Madison said that her mother and father separated when she was 4 and got divorced when she was in sixth grade.
She said she knew her father was gay or bisexual and also knew that he was HIV-positive.
“I knew as soon as he got diagnosed. They were very honest with me. They were very open. They said these are the ways you get this disease, the drugs, sex and blood transfusions. Well, I know it isn’t two of them,” she said.
Donna said that Erick moved to Los Angeles for five years and then returned to Kansas City. She said he led the way with one of the biggest corporate teams with GE that AIDS Walk had ever had.
“Erick loved to be in the spotlight. He loved to get people together. He had a real gift with words. He could write beautifully. He could speak very eloquently. He thought very quickly on his feet. He liked that position of being in charge and talking people into doing things.
“He could sell ice to Eskimos. He had a way of getting people to do what he wanted them to do,” Donna said with a laugh.
She spoke of the early days after Erick was diagnosed with HIV and how difficult it was in their relationship.
“At that point, I don’t think he wanted to face it. I think he knew he was sick. He wouldn’t go to the doctor. He wouldn’t talk to me about it. And then Madison and I went to the movies one afternoon, and when we came home, he had a truck backed up to the front door and he was moving out.” It wasn’t long after that he ended up in the emergency room with pneumocystis pneumonia. Madison said she thought the year was around 1996.
“We got there, and they had him in quarantine, in isolation. We sat in the room with gowns and masks. They treated us like we were like lepers. In the beginning it was not a good experience. It was a very scary experience.” Donna said that in the early days of AIDS, they experienced fear and stigma but not in their family.
“We never did avoid that. We drank after each other. We kissed each other. We never did act like he was a threat to us. We stayed separated, I guess because we didn’t know what else to do. It’s really hard to live with someone you love so much that you can’t be close to.”
Donna said Erick went on to live with a roommate and later with his brother, but the family stayed close and still saw each other and were together for holidays and family vacations.
Madison said, “I have an uncle who’s not really an uncle. He’s an ex-boyfriend, but he’s part of the family.” Donna said that when she and Erick discussed having a child, “I said, ‘You know, I’m not getting any younger.’ And he said, ‘Well, I have two conditions. I want the baby to have my last name.’
‘Not a problem,’ she told him.
‘And I don’t want to have to get married.’
‘That’s not a problem either,’ she said.
“Then as soon as we got pregnant, he said, ‘I want to get married.’
“And I said, no, thank you. And I said ‘I don’t want our child to ever think that we got married because she or he was some kind of accident. If after she’s here, then if you want to get married, then sure, I would like nothing more.’ He had convinced me by the time I was a few months pregnant. I bought my wedding dress while I was pregnant. We got married when she was 10 months old. It was crazy, but crazy fun.”
Donna said she is also planning on creating a quilt out of Erick’s favorite T-shirts from AIDS Walk, his Camp shirt and others from California. “We loved California for vacations and have lots of shirts from there.”
In addition to the work that they are both doing for AIDS Walk this year, Madison is planning for her own wedding in July. She brought a photo of her dad and herself to our interview, holding hands in Venice Beach.
To honor Erick, Madison said, is “the only reason we are doing this. The money is nice, and we like being able to fundraise to give money to the charity. For me, it’s just about honoring him and doing something he would be doing if he was still here. Kind of carrying the torch.”
Donna said, “Not that we can take his place, but I think he would want us to be doing what we are doing.”
To contribute to their AIDS Walk Team Erick either before or after the walk, go to https://www.aidswalkkansascity.org/teamerick.