John Buttny: 1938-2020

John David Buttny recently passed away after a long life of activism and community service. From organizing to working for elected officials, he was a remarkably committed, generous member of the community. John rarely said “no” when asked to work on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to environmental protection to homelessness; from Isla Vista to the Goleta Valley and from the Gaviota Coast to the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley.

John was born in 1938, one of five siblings, and raised in Allendale, New Jersey, by John, his German father, and Irene, his Italian mother. Following his graduation from high school in 1955, he joined the U.S. Navy, sailing the oceans to see the world from aboard a naval destroyer. Following his Navy stint, John earned his bachelor’s degree on the GI Bill at the University of New Hampshire. John then attended grad school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he studied the French Resistance. This was during the 1960s, when protests against the Vietnam War were raging. As a result, John became active in the Boulder Chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Following his many years of anti-war activism, John moved to the Colorado high country, making speakers for stereo systems. There in the Rocky Mountains, he met June Standley, and they had a son, Josh. But they separated after a time: June and Josh moved to Isla Vista, and John moved to Chicago, where he continued his activism. He then relocated to Bolinas, California, where he took time to rethink his activism. He’d been visiting his son in Isla Vista regularly and decided to move there to be closer to him.

In 1976, John met Bette Robinson when a mutual friend brought John to a dinner party at Bette’s home. They instantly connected and soon after fell in love. They were married on the steps of the Santa Barbara Courthouse in 1978. For more than 40 years, John and Bette shared a bond of absolute trust. He loved and cherished her, and he was the love of her life. John became a father to Bette’s children, Alice and Christian. Along with Josh, he nurtured and loved them unconditionally.

Soon after John landed in Isla Vista, he immersed himself in a variety of local activities. Always drawn to grassroots politics, organized, likeable, and a natural-born leader, he served as executive director of the Isla Vista Municipal Advisory Council from 1981 to 1983, and he was the executive director for the nonprofit Rochdale Housing Co-op for UCSB students. He also worked for the nonprofit Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp. and served on the County Human Services Commission.

One of John’s most steadfast friendships began in his early days in Isla Vista when he met Ed Maschke. For more than 40 years, the two worked on a multitude of issues together, walked precincts, and staffed political campaign offices and phone banks. They bounced ideas off each other and had countless introspective talks about a wide range of issues. John fought for saner policies within the County of Santa Barbara in many areas from energy and oil development to housing and homelessness.

In 1985, John was selected as executive assistant to 3rd District County Supervisor Bill Wallace, a post that provided him with a platform to build his reputation as savvy, thoughtful, and shrewd. He was passionate about his views and an apt political strategist with the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of successful campaigning. John also became an expert on land-use issues. He claimed that he learned how to speedread environmental impact reports while working for Bill. He was described as a pragmatic rebel, committed to whatever he did, but also knowing when to compromise. Recalling his years with John, Bill Wallace said that John was a hero to those who knew and worked with him. He was an invaluable asset to the county, but most of all, he was a true friend who never let any of us down.

By 1996, when the county supervisor’s seat changed hand, John had established himself as a well-respected, dedicated public servant. Supervisor-elect Gail Marshall didn’t waste any time asking John to be her executive assistant, beginning a relationship that lasted for more than 25 years. One of John’s key assets was that he was so knowledgeable about the county and its challenges, and the importance of protecting the county’s unparalleled environmental resources and its natural beauty. An equally important asset was John’s steadfast belief that government played a critical role in working for people, a belief that made him a truly dedicated public servant. Of John, Marshall said, “He understood the paradox that the more successfully we preserve what is best about Santa Barbara County, the greater the threats from encroaching interests.”

John was a fierce advocate for the many needs of the homeless community. Following his stint with supervisor Marshall, John’s great empathy for the homeless led him to throw himself into this difficult issue, taking the helm of the Bringing Our Community Home, an organization that drafted a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

For many years, John was a regular “cook” at Real Men Cook, an annual fundraiser for the nonprofit Arts Outreach. Having moved to the Santa Ynez Valley while working for Marshall, he later served, along with Marshall and others, on the Board of Directors of the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, an organization that strived to work on many of the issues that defined John’s life.

In 2008, John received the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s Social Justice Award for promoting tolerance, respect, and compassion for all people in our community, and particularly for his work on the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.

John’s was a life of service and principle. He was true to his convictions, a defender of justice and a protector of the environment. John did not suffer fools. If you didn’t want to dance, he was not going to join your revolution. John was a joyful storyteller and a kind and giving person. He had the unique quality of making whoever he was talking with feel like their words were heard. He had a love for jazz music, fine whiskey, and good conversation.

John’s children remember him as giving a lifetime of nurturing, unconditional love, a thousand tender memories, massive family burrito nights, Cubs games, soccer practices, and big family breakfasts.

John was preceded in death by his son Christian in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Bette; son Josh; and daughter, Alice; his sister, Esther; and his grandchildren, Adam, Veronica, Cameron, Sofia, and Owen.

Carla Frisk and Gail Marshall thank and acknowledge family members Bette Robinson, Alice Taylor, Josh Buttny, and Ester Berger, and friends Bill Wallace, Ed Maschke, Rob Prince, Phillip Woods, and Bruce Goldberg for their contributions to this remembrance.


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