Some people spend a lifetime simply trying to discover their passion. Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt spent a lifetime juggling a plethora of them. Her surname alone is synonymous with charitable giving: She was the matriarch of the Butt empire, which includes H-E-B Grocery, a supermarket chain with more than 350 stores in Texas and Mexico, and the H.E. Butt Foundation, a multi-faceted nonprofit founded for charity, philanthropy, and education purposes, perhaps best known for its Texas Hill Country camps and retreats. But long before the grocery chain had mushroomed with locations across the state and spawned a Community Involvement Program, Butt was an impassioned mover and shaker widely lauded for her humanitarian efforts, particularly in the areas of health and education for Texas’s children, families, minorities, and intellectually challenged.
Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth was born February 4, 1903, near Loma Vista, Texas, one of Rosa Ross and Thomas Holdsworth’s six surviving children. The Holdsworths were a devout Baptist family with a background in education: Thomas emigrated from England with his widowed father, also named Thomas, who was a schoolmaster. The younger Thomas’s wife, Rosa, was a teacher as well. The Holdsworths’ eldest living child, Rosita, was an educator and principal. And Mary, who graduated from Kerrville’s Tivy High School and attended the University of Texas at Austin, followed the same path, teaching school in Center Point, Texas, near Kerrville, in the 1920s.
“The Holdsworths were an odd blend of English and Texan,” said Elizabeth Crook, Mary’s granddaughter, in her article “Aunt Sister,” (published in Texas Monthly in 2004). “They planted English gardens and grew hollyhocks in the dry soil of South Texas and the rocky terrain of the Hill Country, watering them with a teapot; they had tea at four o’clock in the afternoon.”
In 1924, Mary married Howard Edward Butt, the owner of a Kerrville grocery store. Crook wrote that her grandfather wrote to Mary before their wedding: “May God grant that our united life may be felt as a great and lasting good in our community. Any other foundation would not support the edifice we dream of building.”
Five years after their union, the couple moved to Brownsville, in the Rio Grande Valley, and later relocated again to nearby Harlingen. As Butt’s store burgeoned, so too did his wife’s charitable endeavors. He once said, “I make the money, and Mary spends it [on worthy causes]. And I am glad she does.”
A TIRELESS CHAMPION FOR THE UNDERPRIVILEGED
While Butt was building his grocery empire in Harlingen, Mary (known as Mother Two) was a twenty-something mom who busied herself with her own work, making the Butt family dining room the area office for the State Crippled Children’s Program. She also served as chair of the Cameron County Child Welfare Board and expanded local library services. She founded a tuberculosis diagnosis and treatment program, perhaps one of her most ambitious endeavors, and purchased the first equipment to test school children’s hearing and vision. She was a fixture at state legislative committees, where she testified about the budget constraints of the agencies for which she served.
In 1933, the Butts established their eponymous foundation, one of the state’s oldest philanthropic entities, with a focus on libraries, recreational facilities, and education; Mary served as president. In 1940, the Butts moved to Corpus Christi, where they formed charitable organizations including the YWCA, the Hearth, Nueces County Home for the Aged, the Nueces County Tuberculosis Hospital, and the district American Cancer Society.
Mary also founded the Mary Bethune Day Nursery for African American children during a time when childcare for blacks was scarce and helped institute a juvenile center that was unattached to the local jails.
In 1949, Mary, along with Dr. Robert Sutherland and Margaret Scarbrough, debuted the Conference of Texas Foundations and Trusts, now the Conference of Southwest Foundations, which promoted networking and facilitated better organization of charitable entities. The first conference of its kind in the nation, it was eventually replicated in a number of other states. In the 1950s, Mary helped establish Hilltop, a tuberculosis hospital, and served its board for five years.
Together, the Butts conceived the H.E. Butt Foundation Camp. On February 4, 1954, Mary wrote in her diary, “Today we may have seen the place we really want for our Foundation Camp. It is the Wolfe [Ranch] in Real County on the Leakey Highway . . . It is on the Frio River, and is a beautiful place.”
The Butts purchased the 1,900-acre ranch with the sole purpose of creating a children’s haven for outdoor education, with camp facilities available for retreat groups who could not afford them. The Butts’s vision continues today, with the H.E. Butt Foundation Outdoor School and H.E. Butt Foundational Camp programs, which host approximately 20,000 campers each year at no charge. The camp is also the home of Laity Lodge, a Christian-based learning center their son, the late Howard E. Butt, Jr., founded in 1961. “Laity,” the Greek word for “of the people” was designed as a peaceful ecumenical retreat for couples, families, men, women, and youth. “Nestled in the canyon’s gentle turn amid heavy oaks and cedar, sits Laity Lodge,” Howard Butt, Jr., said on the H.E. Butt Foundation’s website. “Through an unmarred vista, you glimpse its lovely buildings of native stone, rustic wood, and generous glass. The river’s sounds, the birds singing, and a sense of peace begin to envelop you.”
A LIFE’S WORK RECOGNIZED
In 1953, Mary received an honorary doctor of law degree from Baylor University and, two years later, an honorary doctorate from Paul Quinn College in Waco. That same year, Texas Governor Allan Shivers appointed her to the governing board of Texas State Hospitals, now known as the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR), and in 1981, Governor William P. Clements named her a member emeritus. As the board’s only female member, Mary spent the next two decades visiting every mental health facility in Texas to champion more humane treatment of the mentally ill, calling for simple but meaningful reform: swapping the steel bowls and wooden spoons with which institutions served patients’ food for dishes and silverware afforded every other human being.
She journaled every day for 60 years, Crook said, “and wrote stories based on tragedies that she had witnessed in her social work: a girl who longed to drown herself because of painful boils in her ears, a stillborn baby preserved in a jar of formaldehyde so it would not become a duende, a troublesome spirit.”
But Mary was not unsung in her heroism. In 1954, she received the Mrs. South Texas Award for her initiatives in public health, education, and social service. For the Butts’ work with libraries, the couple was awarded the Texas Library Association Philanthropic Award of the Year in 1968, and in 1975, in recognition of their humanitarian work locally and statewide, they were honored with the Brotherhood Award from the Corpus Christi Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 1981, the Parent’s Association for the Retarded in Texas awarded Mary the first Yellow Rose Award, and the Texas Senate and House simultaneously adopted resolutions in her honor.
Five years later, Mary became the first recipient of the Texas Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s lifetime award for her “leadership in improving human services for the people of Texas.” She also received the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Awards Committee’s most prestigious honor for “meritorious service to the children of America.”
In 1967, the Butts helped found the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library in Kerrville, whose mission to “provide the means by which people of all ages, interests, and circumstances may avail themselves of the recorded wisdom, experiences, and ideas of others,” according to the library’s website, a tangible testament to the Butts’s personal values. The library remains open to this day.
Mary died at her Corpus Christi home on October 6, 1993, at the age of 90, two years after her husband passed. In 1995, the Texas State Senate approved a resolution honoring her life and expressing “appreciation for her many gifts to the citizens of our state.”
Howard and Mary instilled their values and dreams in their three children, Howard E. Butt, Jr., Margaret Eleanor Butt Crook, and Charles Clarence Butt. (Mary also gave birth to another daughter, Mary Beth, in 1943, but the infant lived just ten days; Mary was buried beside her at Kerrville’s Glen Rest Cemetery).
Charles Butt, who inherited H-E-B in 1971 and serves as the company’s chairman and CEO, founded the Holdsworth Center, named in honor of his mother, in 2017. Like his parents, Charles has donated much of his fortune to educational causes and helped found the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards, the H-E-B Read 3 literacy initiative for young children, and Raise Your Hand Texas, which aids the state’s public schools. The Holdsworth Center, according to its website, “builds on those efforts by strengthening the leaders who serve educators and students.”
“We live in a time when support and funding for the nation’s public schools is declining and faith in the system is eroding,” Charles said on the website. “My investment in The Holdsworth Center is a vote of confidence in our public schools. I believe that the future economic outlook for our state and our country depends on our ability to provide a high-quality education to each and every child.
“. . . Mary Holdsworth Butt possessed a deep and living faith in God that translated into discovering and meeting the needs of people,” he continued. “As a gentle woman with a compassionate love for humanity, she placed selfless regard for the well-being of others before her own. Her accomplishments characterize the truth that one solitary life can make a difference…”
The Holdsworth Center’s board in 2018 broke ground on a $150 million, 44-acre campus in Austin, designed to be a training center for Texas’s school superintendents and principals. The institute is expected to be completed in the summer of 2020.
The Butts’s other children also continued their parents’ legacy of charity. In addition to founding Laity Lodge, Howard E. Butt, Jr., was president of the H.E. Butt Foundation. (He died in 2016 at the age of 89). Margaret Crook was director of Bread for the World, a Christian movement that strives to end hunger worldwide, and her late husband, William H. Crook, was director of the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and, later, was the United States Ambassador to Australia. In 2016, the Crooks were awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award for Lifetime Achievement, the nation’s highest achievement for volunteerism.
“I have measured myself against . . . the Holdsworths ever since I was old enough to listen to stories about them,” Crook wrote. “They were a branch of the family tree that seemed to cast, instead of shadows, a permanent imprint on the face of the earth.”
Her grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, left particularly large shoes to fill – and not just because of her enviable legacy of charitable endeavors. “She could recite more poetry than most of us have ever read,” Crook wrote. “She wore kidskin gloves and large picture hats and wielded her influence in a charming, soft-spoken way. She had a girlish laugh and was never agitated or hurried.
“Like her husband, she was shy but inherently powerful. She read voraciously and gave so many books to her grandchildren (always with her own judgment about each one scribbled on the flyleaf) that she would sometimes lose track and give one grandchild several copies of the same book, sometimes on the same Christmas.”
Crook has always wanted to be more like her grandmother, she said. “Her goodness and accomplishments continue to impress and intimidate me.”
Like all things the Holdsworth-Butt family has had a hand in, it is a legacy likely to endure for generations to come.