Valdosta Daily Times

December 2, 2012

After 39 years, Elizabeth Butler retires from newspaper

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Dec. 3 has always been the anniversary of Lifestyles Editor Elizabeth Butler’s start date at The Valdosta Daily Times.

Come Dec. 4, she will have a new date to remember. This Tuesday will mark Elizabeth’s last day with The Times. The date she retires after 39 years and a day with the newspaper.

“I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to tell the stories of so many wonderful people,” Elizabeth says. “… The stories of children have been closest to my heart and their struggles to overcome cancer and other diseases.”

In 39 years, Elizabeth has told thousands of stories touching the hearts of the South Georgia community. As Lifestyles editor, she has processed countless numbers of births, engagements, weddings and 50th anniversaries from throughout the region and the years. She has helped shape so many area stories from beginning to end that it is hard to imagine a South Georgian’s life that has not been impacted in some way by Elizabeth’s work.

And these stories have left their imprint on her, strengthening her faith.

“The blessing is to see how God has worked in the lives of the children and babies and adults and even to have God praised in certain cases,” Elizabeth says.

She is amazed at how often, without her prodding, interview subjects will turn to matters of God and faith. It has happened so often that Elizabeth has come to see herself moved by God to cover certain stories. She has come to see newspaper work as her calling.

“I have not actively searched for stories in which God moves in people’s lives,” Elizabeth says. “They have just come to me. That has been my calling. That has been my ministry.”

But Elizabeth Butler almost followed another path.

The oldest of Randy and Ruth Rigsby’s seven children, Elizabeth was raised in Camilla. As a child, she read the “Brenda Starr” newspaper comic strips. Brenda Starr was a reporter who led a glamorous and adventurous life. Brenda Starr had a mysterious boyfriend with a patch over one eye.

Inspired by Brenda Starr, Elizabeth became assistant editor of her high school paper. She became editor of the Norman College newspaper in Norman Park near Moultrie. Enrolled in the University of Georgia, Elizabeth contributed stories to the college paper, The Red and Black. She worked in the women’s section of the Athens Daily News and for the Sunday magazine of the Athens Daily News-Banner Herald.

Despite this work and Brenda Starr providing what Elizabeth has described as her “distorted view of journalism” as a glamorous career, she planned on becoming a teacher while also studying journalism. Elizabeth graduated UGA with a bachelor’s degree in English with a teaching certificate and a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Having graduated UGA, Elizabeth took a job with a small country school near Athens. She taught English to fifth- through eighth-grade students from March to the end of the school year. She taught about 40 students in a large auditorium, because the kids had burned down the school earlier in the academic year.

Elizabeth says she could not have planned a worse possible scenario for starting her teaching career. She did not want to return as a teacher to this school, and the experience of that school led Elizabeth to realize she did not wish to teach any school.

She turned her attention immediately to journalism. With the school out by June, Elizabeth took a job that month with The Moultrie Observer. She worked there for a year and a half.

At the time, Elizabeth was dating a fellow who lived in Valdosta. To save gas costs, she interviewed for a job at The Valdosta Daily Times. On Dec. 3, 1973, Elizabeth Rigsby started working at The Times. That boyfriend didn’t last but she built a long-lasting relationship with The Times. And she would soon meet the man of her dreams.

Elizabeth’s early beat included the outlying counties where she would cover meetings and other news. She also covered crime in Valdosta, where she met a police officer named Bill Butler. He called to ask her for a date. Given the request came by phone, Elizabeth believed she had accepted a date with another police officer. She was surprised when Bill Butler came to the door, but she soon found herself in love with the tall police officer.

The feeling was mutual. He first asked Elizabeth to marry him a month after they started dating. They married and raised two children, son Chris and daughter Heather. Chris married a girl named Heather, giving Elizabeth two grandchildren, twins Ella Grace and Emma. Bill rose to commander of the Valdosta Police Department’s Support Services Bureau and assistant chief before passing away on April 10, 2008.

At The Times, Elizabeth Butler became the Lifestyles editor. Her name has become synonymous with The Times’ annual Taste-Off cooking competition, which she has supervised since 1985. Of course, those who know Elizabeth find her association with the Taste-Off both humorous and ironic. The woman who heads the region’s longest-running cooking contest cannot stand to cook. “I cooked when my children were small,” Elizabeth says, laughing. “I don’t like to cook and I don’t have to now.”

As mentioned, she has told numerous stories and experienced many things. She was threatened twice for stories. She recalls an adventurous airplane flight for another story. She has a great love for sharing missionary stories, her last of which can be found on today’s Life section front.

But of all of the stories and her newspaper experiences, Elizabeth says the one that affected her most was a story as recent as December 2009.

In this article, “A Chance at a Normal Life,” Elizabeth told the story of a young child saved from a brutal life by the parents who adopted her through foster care. Elizabeth opened the story with these powerful lines: “The toddler was filthy and wreaked of cigarette smoke, her face streaked with the tracks of her tears. The caseworker’s headlights flashed on her as she climbed down the ladder into the swimming pool and certain death had she not been discovered. Though she was placed into foster care and a loving home, the childhood neglect and abuse she suffered would manifest itself into Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, where she would scream, ‘Let me out.’ Time-out in her previous home had meant her hands and feet bound, duct tape over her mouth and placed in a closet. Within a week of the termination of her mother’s visitation rights at age 5, her nightmares stopped.”

“If the social worker had not gotten to that child in the swimming pool when she did,” Elizabeth says, “that child would be dead.”

“A Chance at a Normal Life” is a story of tragic loss, brutal reality and faithful redemption, all of which are hallmarks of an Elizabeth Butler story.

Though there are more stories that need telling, more stories which may find her, Elizabeth says she feels the time has come to retire.

She looks forward to being master of her own time: sleeping late if she wishes, reading a book for as long as she wants, or as many books as she wants, and spending more time with her 6-year-old granddaughters.  

She won’t miss writing stories but she will miss the people she meets to write stories about, and she will miss the friends she sees daily and often through her work.

Elizabeth Butler sums up her 39 years with The Times simply: “If I have caused one person to think about their salvation, to bring them closer to God, then my career has been a success.”


Reception for Elizabeth Butler

The Valdosta Daily Times hosts a public reception for Elizabeth Butler from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, at The Times’ 201 N. Troup St. offices. The public is welcome to attend.