BY SCOTT SULLIVAN EDITOR
Patti Beery is blessed and cursed with the legacy of her father Verse White, who died Dec. 10 at age 90 after owning The Butler restaurant … well, forever.
Blessed because his story is rich, cursed because who has time and a venue free of appropriateness gestapo in which to tell it.
Then there’s the fact her father, son of Arkansas sharecroppers during The Great Depression, saw his heirs sell their 60-year business months before he died.
Still, there’s empowering consolation from that legacy.
“Dad said to get anywhere in the world,” recalled Patti,
seated at The Butler
overlooking Kalamazoo Lake snow squalls, “you have to be your own boss. Do what you love to do, do it well and be passionate about it.
“His vision,” she goes on, “was to build a business for his kids. He did. He and Mom had five of us — Vicki (Phelps), me, Joel, Todd and Brad — who worked here. So did our kids.
“In our ways we’re strong-willed like our father too.”
Verser White — named for Dr. Walter Verser who birthed him Jan. 12, 1931 — recalled his grandmother dragging him on a sack through fields while older family picked cotton.
He was seven when their house burned down. The Whites moved to Marshall, Mich., where they worked for Eaton Manufacturing and his Uncle Steve had just bought a restaurant.
Verse graduated from Marshal High School in 1949, spent four years in the Navy, came home to Marshall and worked three jobs: cleaning mornings for Uncle Steve’s restaurant, in the Eaton factory during days and nights as a manager for Win Schuler’s restaurant.
Two Schuler’s regulars — Bob Sergeant, who owned a Battle Creek refuse business, and Lowell Livingston, who owned a Marshall firm that made manhole covers — liked White’s hospitality skills and work ethic.
The two, who had bought The Butler in 1957, asked White to move to Saugatuck and run it. “So,” remembers Patti, “with a wife — Pat was 17 when they’d married — and three young children they set out in January 1961 for a place they had never been. Dad was 30.
The Butler even then was historic. Built in 1892, per old menus, The Butler was first used as a steam-powered grist mill.
In 1900 the high cost of coal caused the owner to dismantle the milling machinery and sell the building to a lake sailor who converted it into a summer resort hotel.
The Hotel Butler opened June 20, 1901, with 30 rooms, including a large dining room and bar, with wide porches on the lower two of its three porches. A windmill supplied its water.
Its strategic location at the south end of Butler Street next to the Interurban railroad terminal — now Saugatuck’s Information Booth — plus unsurpassed views of the lake and boat traffic made it popular.
Despite the loss of the old Interurban, whose tracks to and from Holland were torn up in 1925, Prohibition and Great Depression, the Hotel Butler remained successful as an eating, drinking and lodging business.
The Whites arrived just after The Big Pavilion, a landmark dance hall, had burned to the ground next door. Butler owners acquired its liquor license.
“We lived upstairs in Room 40 — I still have the keys,” says Patti, “until we moved into our own house, and eventually one on the north end of Butler Street.
“Dad had a bulldog ‘Duke’ he took everywhere. He would walk from home to work the whole length of Butler Street with the ‘Duke of Butler’ daily.
“We had a clientele from the now-defunct Chase Manufacturing plant who came in late after their shifts,” she continues. “So we stayed open later for them.
“’Those are hungry men,’ Dad said, so he concocted The Butler Burger — a half-pound of fresh USDA choice sirloin, charbroiled to taste, with ham, cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise served on a sesame-seed bun with potato chips and a pickle.
“This was back when McDonald’s was expanding and 10- to 15-cent burgers were the norm,” Patti goes on. “Dad was told he’d never succeed with a 75-cent burger. ‘Watch me,’ he said. The Butler Burger — now $14 — to this day is a menu staple.
“’I will always have the best food and deal in town,’ Dad would say. Our menu was never extensive, but the things we chose to do we did right.”
The family expanded the riverside boardwalk, increased boat slips from 34 to 53, and in 1971 lopped off the building’s top two stories. “They were old, expensive to maintain and became a fire trap,” Patti remembers. “We’d seen other aging local hotels burn down. Lodgers were starting to favor more-modern venues.
“Mom set out the furniture — clawfoot bathtubs, wicker chairs, more — on the lawn and sold them for $5 each.”
White completed buying out the restaurant from Sargent and Livingston in 1978. Vicki married Scott Phelps, Patti Don Beery, Joel and Brad went on their own, Todd remaine a key man “but always behind the scenes,” Patti says.
“We were open every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving,” she goes on. “Dad liked fast cars and to drive them fast. He came home one day in a vintage fire truck. ‘I never had a fire truck growing up,’ he told Mom.
“’I just hope you had a toy train,’ she said.”
Days, years and lives go by. The building’s arched glass doorway and fireplace remain intact — reminders of the original Hotel Butler — but like people the operation has kept evolving.
Some sons moved on to start their own restaurants. Vicki, Todd and Patti in the early 2000s bought out their parents, whom afterwards enjoyed traveling with the Duke of Butler.
Don and Patti’s son Kyle — a student at Butler University, wouldn’t you know — had recurring heart problems. During his surgery there, Patti’s dear friend Sue Ross died, also in Indianapolis.
“I went to see Kyle in recovery,” Patti remembers. “He asked, ‘What’s wrong, Mom? It’s Sue, isn’t it? She was in the O.R. next to me.’
“I didn’t have the heart for the business after that,” Patti continues. “Dad always urged us to do what you do with passion or do something else.
“I’ve always liked to make things. My daughter Katie Doucette even more — she’s become a renowned designer. Google ‘Polka Dot Mitten’ sometime.”
With Don and Katie, Patti opened ‘It Is What It Is’ in Douglas 11 years ago, later moving the shop to 318 Butler Street, “almost dead between where we grew up and the restaurant,” Patti says. “Vicki and Scott became sole owners of The Butler.
“Two years ago Mom fell down the stairs, broke her back and we had to move her to Rest Haven. Dad’s decline after that was noticeable. He’d outlived all his friends. For years they’d hold court at the round table in the restaurant.
“While driving he started to get in accidents. When we had to take away his keys he was devastated.
“After he had a bad fall on the sidewalk outside my shop, we moved him to Rest Haven where he could be with Mom. On the day of his funeral tornado destroyed Trumann, Ark. These are only some stories I can tell,” Patti says.
Vicki and Scott sold The Butler last June to the RedWater Collection, which owns nine other west Michigan restaurants plus golf clubs like The Ravines nearby. Patti’s granddaughter Caralyn Doucette still works there.
Already the firm has leveled the old Butler outdoor bar and deck northwest of the restaurant proper with plans for a two-story, 312-seat dining and drinking venue with patio in its place.
“It has to change,” says Patti. “Times change. We all change. Still I can’t help but feel nostalgic. Everything here has a story to it. I think the new owners understand core things that have been sustaining with the business and its tradition.
“Then we go on. ‘Be your own strong person,’ Dad said. ‘No one else can do that for you. You have to do it yourself.’ We will.”