Keith Butler: Do Well by Doing Good

By Sally Anne Flecker | Spring 2015

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Keith Butler, the charming elder statesman of the Master of Nonprofit Administration (MNA '15) with the Oklahoma drawl and disarming modesty, does not like to be bored.

Over the course of a highly successful 20-plus year career as a lawyer, he practiced insurance defense litigation, served as general counsel for an international insurance holding company and was tapped as a municipal judge in his early thirties. He also thought to himself, “I’m going to die on this bench. I’m going to die.” Rather than face that fate, he took another position as general counsel to a U.S. and Canadian concern, then turned around and co-founded what grew into one of the largest trucking litigation boutiques in the country.

In 2001, Butler decided, what the heck, he’d run for Congress in his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma. He had a sizable lead and a good war chest, but was on the wrong side of gerrymandering. He was asked to run as statewide candidate for the utility commission, and he dutifully complied. “I won 44 of 77 counties,” he says, “but they weren’t the right 44. Thank goodness. I did not want to become a bureaucrat.” But he was faced with the prospect of figuring out what he wanted to do next.

Around that same time, he was asked to advocate for a distant relative on a drug charge. “If there is a lawyer in the family, invariably you will be called upon,” Butler laughs. “I volunteered for a cousin who was related to this individual. She needed help. Her husband was serving in Iraq. It was one of those things where I had the requisite background. I knew the legal players — the judges and the DAs. I went simply as a legal advocate on her behalf with little, if any, background in substance abuse treatment.”

But what started as a favor for someone he had never met became an unexpected turning point in his life. Part of the plea agreement stipulated residential treatment. But there was none to be had. When Butler went to make arrangements, three different locations told him there was a six-month wait. Who can afford that kind of wait? Butler says, “My entrepreneurial juices kicked in.”

The way he typically tells what happened next belies the hard work and savvy it took on his part to bring a substance abuse residential treatment facility serving indigent women into existence. Butler purchased a 15,000- square-foot nursing home, hired the best professional staff he could, and named it Valliant House. Just like that, he had an in-patient treatment facility up and running. That was 2005. To date, Valliant House has helped more than 1,700 women successfully.

“To be candid, I would say that my initial motivation was more business-oriented, because I had a void in my career at the moment and needed something to channel my interests,” Butler admits. “That said, after the first 10 women came to begin their treatment, my motivation switched to more of a sense that this was an opportunity for me to provide service to others. Those first 10 are still people near and dear to my heart. They made such an impression on me.”

Eventually, Butler developed programs for men as well, including aftercare and outpatient services. In 2008, he opened a men’s sober-living farm — the Eagle’s Nest — for men who have already received substance abuse treatment and are committed to continuing with their recovery. In the works are plans for a full-service residential program as well.

A chance encounter with fellow Oklahoman and Notre Dame alumnus and Trustee Emeritus W. K. “Bill” Warren Jr. (’56) led to Butler’s enrollment in the MNA program. Butler had actually voiced his desire to go to Notre Dame when he was a mere babe in kindergarten, but had attended Oklahoma State and University of Oklahoma College of Law in- stead. Not only did the Notre Dame MNA program dovetail with his social justice entrepreneurial efforts, but it was a dream-long-deferred come true.

“I tell people that here I am in the latter stages of my career, but I learn from the 25-to-45 year olds multiple times daily,” he says. (He’s only 57, but he likes that his classmates fondly refer to him as G-Pop.)

“I am so blessed to have their perspective on how to approach so many of the problems that we’re facing in society,” he added. “And I’m also so impressed with my classmates. Many of them speak several languages and have lived and served in foreign countries. I know some of the mechanics of the business aspect, but I needed a refresher course. And I needed it where it was tempered with the ethics and morality that a Notre Dame education provides. Ultimately, my goal is to do well by doing good.”