They’ll come Thursday to remember that once they were a part of Earl “Moose” Butler, and that the old sheriff forever will be a part of them.
Black mourning bands will cover their badges.
They’ll stand straight and tall and solemn, and the old sheriff would expect nothing less on the last farewell Thursday at Massey Hill Baptist Church that runs alongside Moose Butler Lane.
“I’m proud of the people that make up the Sheriff’s Office,” Butler said just before retiring on Dec. 31, 2016, after six terms and 22 years as Cumberland County sheriff. “They’re professional people and because I know we’ve got leaders here that when something comes up it’s handled in the proper way.”
He was, most all will tell you, larger than life.
He had a presence.
When Moose Butler came into any room, you knew the high sheriff was there. There was a presence in his decades as a probation officer with the N.C. Department of Correction, Division of Community Corrections, as a schoolteacher, a basketball referee for the games kids played. And as a talented athlete on the football fields of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his beloved Massey Hill High School.
‘Blessed to grow up in Massey Hill’
He was a mill village kid over there along Southern Avenue by Lakedale way, where his daddy was a circuit preacher and his mama worked long hours in the spinning loom rooms.
“He was kind of shy and laid back,” Betty Blue Underwood, a high school cheerleader, says. “He stayed in the background, but his presence was always felt.”
His boyhood pals included Jimmy Julian, Elmer Arnette, Sterling Baker and Angus McLean, and you found them together playing sandlot football, basketball and baseball, and always under the watchful eye of their coach Young Howard. And there was always Lancaster’s Grocery Store just for hanging out.
“In the old days we didn’t have cellphones and Facebook,” Butler was saying not so long ago. “We talked to each other. It was a good community. People were close in the mill village, and families knew each other. People had respect for one another. If a lady came in, you got up and gave them your seat, and you always would take off your hat if you went into somebody’s house. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt blessed to grow up in Massey Hill and I knew how to treat people.”
Butler was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League after competing in the College All-Star Game, but he eventually found his way back to Massey Hill, where he married his high school sweetheart, Julia Sherrill Butler, on July 21, 1962. They would raise a daughter and a son, and at the core of their lives was Massey Hill Baptist Church.
He was a deacon.
He was steadfast in his faith.
He was a disciple of his Lord and savior and not just on any given Sunday, but for all of his more than 60 years of living his faith at the church looking down along Southern Avenue and the Massey Hill community Moose Butler took such pride in calling home.
Sept. 23, 1997
Earl Ray Butler died Sunday.
He was 84.
They called him Moose.
He’ll be remembered Thursday at the church on the hill, where the Rev. Tim Evans will remind us of Butler’s unbridled faith, where Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright will remember his mentor and where Ronnie Mitchell, longtime legal counsel to the old sheriff, will deliver the eulogy.
“Grief,” it has been said, “is not the absence of love. Grief is the proof that love is still there,” Mitchell plans to say Thursday.
“That proof is shown when we think about Moose Butler, and what a great man he was - how he loved his wife, his family, the deputies, and all of the people of this county, city and community.’’
The 300-seat sanctuary will be filled, as will Massey Hill Classical High School gymnasium, where the church will live stream the service.
Butler will be remembered for bringing national accreditation to the Sheriff’s Office, of which he was so proud. For the construction of a new Cumberland County Detention Center and the memorial for honoring law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty to include Deputy David Hathcock and state Highway Patrol trooper Ed Lowry while attempting to detain two teenage brothers on Sept. 23, 1997, along Interstate 95.
“I remember the pain and anger in his eyes when we lost Ed and David,” says Col. Freddy Johnson Jr., who was just beginning with the N.C. Highway Patrol and now is its commander. “He called me and wanted me to help with escorting the brothers to the jail so it would show unity with our agencies. He was shaken at the absolute senselessness of it. Moose was a great sheriff and a true friend to me. I can’t believe he is gone.”
Butler will be remembered as the sheriff who opened his office door, his ear and his heart for a grieving father to talk for more than an hour about the life of his slain little girl. His hands trembling, the father told Butler, “I want you to know this, sheriff, I can leave here not so much that you solved this case, but because you cared.”
County deputies will escort the old sheriff to the awaiting hearse along Moose Butler Lane on Thursday, and Wright will lead the procession toward the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Cumberland County Courthouse and adjacent Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office for a poignant moment.
Larry Chason says he will bring the black hearse to a slow pause, step outside and bow his head in a final and personal prayer to his friend before the old sheriff summons him onward to Cross Creek Cemetery No. 3.
“I know it’s time for me to move on,” you can almost hear Butler whisper, just as he did when retiring in 2016. “It’s time. You never know what the Lord’s got in store for you.”
They called him sheriff.
They called him Moose, and Earl Ray “Moose” Butler, so many will have us know, was a larger-than-life presence never to forget.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 910-624-1961.