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Born to run: Mayor in office 42 years

Bob Butler had big dreams to fix Marion, Ill.,  when he took over as mayor. Forty-years later, he's still at the helm.
Bob Butler, mayor of the Southern Illinois town of Marion, Ill., for 42 years, has seen the town go from the brink of having the lights turned off because of a $6,000 electric bill to a rapidly growing city.James A. Finley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bob Butler had big dreams to fix this stumbling southern Illinois city when he took over as mayor when President Kennedy was still in office.

It was 1963 and the city faced having its lights shut off for an unpaid $6,000 electric bill. When the streets superintendent asked a store clerk to charge a $1.25 bundle of stakes to the city, the clerk put them back on the shelf.

“The town seemed to be drifting along in dire financial straits,” Butler, 78, said of that first time he ran for mayor. “We were hanging on the rope, and I thought, goodness, we could do better.”

The city has and Butler has been at the helm ever since.

Many praise him as a straight-shooting, old-school public servant whose pro-growth agenda has helped turn this once-flagging city into a regional powerhouse along Interstate 57.

Praise from opponents
Now in his 11th term, Butler continues a streak as mayor that according to some rankings is among the nation’s longest.

Some of Butler’s defeated opponents still call him a friend and credit his accessibility, including handing out business cards with his home telephone number.

“What I like about Bob is that he’s given his whole life to the city. That’s a fact,” said David Hancock, a former Marion city commissioner who lost to Butler in 1995. “Bob has dedicated his being, so to speak, to this town. That’s Bob’s life.

“When Bob sets his mind to doing something, it gets done.”

The city’s population now numbers more than 16,000, up about 30 percent since Butler first took office. During his tenure, the city has worked hard to court businesses and now has two industrial parks, one bearing Butler’s name and featuring a Circuit City distribution center sprawling across 27 acres.

Under Butler’s watch, Marion rebounded after a 1982 tornado that killed 10 people and caused about $50 million in damage. The city also rebuilt a downtown civic center that burned to the ground in 1997 and by 2007, a minor league ballpark is expected to be built here.

The spry Butler has faced no opposition the past two elections, although he insists: “I don’t consider myself a kingfish.”

'You can't argue with success'
Butler believes that perhaps he was born to run this city. His maternal grandfather was mayor here from 1923-27 and, for a time, was police chief. Butler’s father served on the local school board and city commission, then spent 16 years in the state Legislature during the 1940s and ’50s.

Butler ran unsuccessfully for the state House once in the 1970s, convinced he could make a bigger difference from Springfield. Some suggest he lost that race because Marion voters deemed him too valuable as mayor.

“He’s a fixture, and he’ll be mayor as long as he wants to because you can’t argue with success,” said Marion’s long-term water commissioner Robert “Dog” Connell, who ran unsuccessfully against Butler in 1971 in what Connell called a “personality contest” between two like-minded friends.

Two years later, Butler accomplished what he considers to be his crowning achievement. He urged city leaders to pay $15,000 for a vacant 1920s theater downtown and then got them to agree to spend 10 times that to turn it into a civic center.

When some branded that a waste, Butler often replied, “You very well may be right.”

But when that civic center burned down in 1997, Butler said, locals watched helplessly, many of them weeping.

“The embers were still glowing when we put together a plan to rebuild,” Butler said. “Seven years and $9 million later, we have the showplace of southern Illinois. And it all stems from that $15,000 purchase.”

'I don't like him but he's doing a good job'
Butler can’t help but gloat about the 44,000-square-foot, 1,065-seat gem, which is used for a variety of performances that in recent months has included dance recitals, the Air Force band and the ballet “Swan Lake.”

“Fortunately more often than not I’ve been proven to be on the right track,” Butler said.

“He pulls no punches,” said Tim Petrowich, managing editor of the Marion Daily Republican. “With people who don’t like him, what you hear is ’I don’t like him but he’s doing a good job.’

“If you take a look at the growth in this city the last 10 or 15 years, it’s been phenomenal.”

To Butler, the recipe for that has been simple: Let businesses do their thing, provided it’s not illegal, immoral, unsafe or against zoning.

“So often, when a business would come to town they’d be burdened by regulations and rules as far as permits and what not. We cut through all that like a knife through hot butter,” he said. “We keep regulation to a minimum.”

Up for re-election in 2007
Butler is quick to point out that he couldn’t have shepherded Marion’s growth over the past four decades without willing city commissioners, saying “not every good idea has been mine.”

He casts himself among the technologically illiterate, preferring a simple yellow legal pad and No. 2 pencil over a computer. He doesn’t have a cell phone.

Butler works a full day and often into the night, spending his spare time reading. On weekends, he enjoys rides through the countryside with Louetta Butler, his wife of 54 years.

“I have never liked the idea of being the mayor’s wife. If somebody says anything against Bob, it upsets me,” she says. “But I have told him that whatever makes him happy, do it.”

Up for re-election in 2007, the self-professed Republican who holds a “nonpartisan” office isn’t talking retirement.

“I thoroughly enjoy this,” he said. “Any time I run I think it’s a referendum on what I’m doing. One thing I often say is that if reasonable people reason together, reasonable things happen.”