This column appeared in The Herald-Sun in May 2014:
Michael Butts met his future wife in 2003 in the bookstore at Durham Technical Community College.
She needed a cassette recorder for a class in anatomy and physiology. She couldn’t find one.
The burly man – a formal football player at N.C. Central University who worked at the store even though it paid less than unemployment – asked if she needed help.
“I do not,” she said. “Thank you.”
Eventually, though, she conceded: “On second thought, I do need some help.”
Butts told her to look on the wall by the financial aid counter.
“I looked there,” she said.
Back and forth they went about whether a recorder could be found back there.
Finally, she asked: “How much do you want to bet?”
“How about your phone number?”
“What would you do with my phone number?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I will hang it on my wall.”
She laughed, but agreed, confident that he wouldn’t find a recorder.
He returned 10 minutes later, recorder in hand.
“Where was it?” she asked.
“Where I said it was,” he lied. She called him on it. He confessed that he went back to find one in storage. “Either way, you have to give me that number.”
“I did,” Syreeta Butts said this week, more than a decade later. “I was attracted to his smile, mostly. He had beautiful teeth and a sweet, teddy bear kind of personality.”
He was easygoing, she said. Not intimidated by her. He called that night.
“We talked for about four or five hours on the phone like we had known each other all our lives,” she said. “It was permanent from then on.”
Michael Butts grew up in Riverside and Moreno Valley, California. He came to Durham on a scholarship to play college football at NCCU. He earned an undergraduate degree in psychology.
He married Syreeta in 2005, but never actually proposed. He just told her, matter-of-fact, the wedding would happen in the summer and they’d vacation in Jamaica in November. They had two sons together and she had two children from a previous relationship.
In May 2010, after returning to NCCU to pursue a master’s degree in mental-health counseling, Michael learned he had urethral adenocarcinoma – a cancer that came with dreadful labels like “rare,” “invasive” and “aggressive.” Doctors told her to plan the funeral.
Syreeta suggested that he put aside his pursuit of the advanced degree so he could focus instead on quality of life.
“I wanted him to do what he wanted when he wanted, not work or go to school or coach with the Durham Eagles or workout at the gym two times per day,” she said. “I did not want him to be stressed like that.”
Despite the grim diagnosis, Michael wouldn’t give up; wouldn’t quit. He was too proud. Too hopeful. Too committed. And doing all those things, it seemed, gave him the quality of life that Syreeta worried about.
“Cancer was not going to stop him,” she said. “I read somewhere that ‘commitment is doing what you said you would do long after the feeling is gone.’ He was committed.”
He wanted to help people with mental illness and improve their quality of life.
“Michael improved everyone’s life who he encountered, including mine” she said. “Because of him, I am a better mother, Christian, friend and co-worker.”
He taught their children gratitude and the value of hard work, strength and perseverance.
“Y’all must be glad y’all grew up poor, because that is all y’all talk about,” their oldest child once quipped.
Michael kept at it, living as though he’d be here for decades. He didn’t have time to sleep, he’d say. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
He wouldn’t indulge in self-pity. He never sought sympathy. He wanted to be treated like anyone else.
“If you see me in a fight with a bear, don’t help me,” he said. “Help the bear!”
Michael Butts, 34, died April 16, just weeks before he would’ve received his master’s degree. The university conferred it to him posthumously, with Syreeta accepting on his behalf.
“It was such an honor,” she said. “I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, shout or faint.”
His hard work and dedication paid off, she said.
“Our family is overjoyed to see the fruit of his labor,” she said. “This accomplishment has set a new standard for us, especially the children.”
Wes Platt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.