Alumnus finds redemption in life journey
Bart Butler, who was incarcerated at one point in his life and who also lost everything in the real estate downturn more than a decade ago, now owns several businesses and is sharing his keys for success with current Virginia Tech students
During an event-filled football weekend at Virginia Tech in mid-October, Calvin Jamison ran into a familiar face whom he recruited as a student to the university during his time as assistant director of admissions in the late 1970s.
Jamison, a former Virginia Tech Board of Visitors member who now works as the vice president for facilities and economic development at the University of Texas at Dallas, received the customary hug from Bart Butler.
“And there’s always a ‘thank you’ that comes with it,” Jamison said.
Butler, a 1984 graduate with a degree in finance from the Pamplin College of Business, regularly expresses gratitude because he knows his life story easily could be different. Instead, his has seen him overcome tragedies in his youth, a poor decision that led to a four-month jail incarceration, and a horrible real estate downturn that wiped out his businesses.
Now one of the university’s more prominent alumni, Butler serves on the Apex Center for Entrepreneurship advisory board and the Pamplin Advisory Council and is in the process of endowing a scholarship in his name and that of Brian Keith Roberts — a dear classmate also from Washington, D.C., who died of cancer several years ago. The scholarship will benefit qualified students from the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore corridor.
Butler recently chronicled his story in a book titled “Redemption: Grace Extended and The Real Price of Success,” which can be purchased through this site. A portion of the proceeds goes toward Butler’s scholarship.
“I’ve always wanted to share my story,” Butler said. “It’s not a unique story, but it’s one that I’ve wanted to get out there so that other kids could read about how I overcame growing up in a tough environment, in a tough situation, and being sort of a lesson to them that they could do the same thing. Your future is not dictated by your past.
“I wanted to put some lessons in there and some systems that I came up with on how to deal with adversity. I think it’s a book that people of all ages will find informational and inspiring as well.”
Butler certainly defied the odds to avoid being a victim of the streets in the Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he lived as a child. He learned about coping with tragedy in his youth, as he is the only one of five boys in the family to live past the age of 30. Two of his brothers were murdered, and a third died in a police chase.
After graduating from Dunbar High School, Butler struggled initially with the transition to Virginia Tech. But good people steered him in the right direction, particularly Jamison, who was a recruiter for all students, with an additional role then of recruiting Black students to Virginia Tech.
“You take him out of the familiarity of an urban city like Washington, D.C., where Dunbar High is probably 95 percent African American, and you bring him to Blacksburg, Virginia, where we, at that time, were probably 2 percent African American, it basically was a culture shock,” Jamison said. “We needed to develop a real strong support system on campus to make sure that recruited students were going to be successful both in the classroom and outside of the classroom, and we were able to lay the foundation to accomplish that.
“The thing about Bart during the recruitment and development process is he wasn’t a kid who was going to fall through the cracks because he had this inquisitive spirit and this engaging personality along with his other colleagues who came in with him. He became involved in the expansion and establishment of organizations on campus. In addition, if you were recruited, you had to host a student being recruited for the next class. I believe the involvement in these initiatives helped retain Bart and others during that time.”
Jamison’s encouragement and that of others led to Butler becoming involved with the Black Student Alliance and the Black Organization Council. He took on leadership roles in both.
In doing so, Butler learned how to work with people who did not share his background. Jamison believes that Butler’s time with these organizations enabled him to understand unique cultures and behaviors and played a formative role in Butler’s successes.
“It was not a question of whether Bart would be successful,” Jamison said. “It was a question of how successful he would become. He, like so many of the African American students recruited during his era, was determined to leave his mark on Virginia Tech.”
Success, though, did not come right away. Following his graduation, Butler worked as a private contractor for the Department of Defense, and he hated it. He later moved into sales, working in financial services, and then in the late 1990s, he began transitioning into the mortgage business. At that time, wife Monica, pregnant with the couple’s first child, developed hyperemesis gravidarum, a very difficult and extreme condition caused by her pregnancy, landing her in the hospital and then on bed rest at the couple’s home with full-time intravenous therapy. Her condition and the business transition left Butler feeling stressed and led to a misappropriation of client funds.
After eventually being caught, Butler pled guilty to insurance fraud and spent four months in jail.
“She was bed ridden,” Butler said. “The office was about 45 minutes from the house at that time, so I would have to go to work, open the business, get things going, then come back home and change her IV. I was going back and forth. It took its toll on me, and I made some wrong decisions.
“When it finally came up, I didn’t fight it at all. I knew what I had done. I pled guilty to it. I was sentenced to 18 months, but I got out on reconsideration after four months and made complete restitutions. It took some years, but I made complete restitution to all my former clients, and everything has been fine since.”
After his incarceration, Butler went to work for a mortgage company, and shortly after starting that job, he decided to get his real estate license. He launched his own company, building a team of 15 associates, and then he expanded operations, moving into construction.
He had constructed what he termed a “mini little real estate empire” approximately a decade after his four-month stint in jail. He and his wife built a home in Baltimore County and owned homes in Boca Raton, Florida, and Ocean City, Maryland. They traveled all over the world, enjoying the fruits of their labor.
But in 2008, the real estate market tanked — and the Butlers lost everything.
“We were living the life, and we knew there was going to be a correction, but what happened wasn’t a correction,” Butler said. “The country pretty much fell off a cliff.
“I basically had to start over, and it took seven years, which is very biblical, and which is why there are a lot of spiritual overtones in the book. During that seven-year period, I basically had to remake myself.”
The road to redemption wasn’t easy. Butler and his family moved eight times from 2009-16. He said that he broke down and cried some days, as he and his family rebuilt their lives.
Ever the entrepreneur, though, Butler said he used his contacts and expertise to rebuild their businesses. He even returned to real estate and cited the building of a church as the start of the comeback.
Today, they own six businesses, including My Real Estate Mart, a web-based company that connects people seeking real estate services with those who provide them, and Baltimore Urban Renewal, which purchases distressed properties and rehabilitates them to uplift neighborhoods.
During those tough times, he never lost faith, believing in his spirit of perseverance.
“It just seemed like running a business was easy compared to the stuff I dealt with growing up, so the worst thing that could happen was, ‘You know, it didn’t make it,’” Butler said. “When we lost everything, it was like, ‘OK, back to ground zero. We’ll just start over.’ It’s not like I was born with a silver spoon. I had to work, so I just went back to grinding it out, and that’s always been a guiding principle, just never give up.
“That’s been my mantra. For most entrepreneurs, your failures don’t define you. They just give you another opportunity to succeed.”
Butler said that remembering that he graduated from Virginia Tech often propelled him through difficult times. Obtaining that degree, despite overwhelming obstacles, gave him confidence to meet challenges, and he credits coming to Virginia Tech as “the most life-changing, important decision I ever made.”
He became more involved with the university after being contacted by Whitney Eggers, who worked in Virginia Tech’s Advancement division from 2016 until taking a position at the University at Buffalo in August. Eggers steered him toward the Apex Center for Entrepreneurship, seeing him as a good fit for the center’s advisory board.
“He has been in the world as an entrepreneur,” Eggers said. “He knows the joys and the struggles, the successes and the setbacks. More importantly, when it comes to a position like this, he’s passionate about passing that knowledge forward. When this opportunity came up, he was excited, and it seemed like such a great fit.”
Butler wanted to give back — and more than just financially. Today, he offers his experience and knowledge in the construction industry to Virginia Tech students interested in pursuing careers in that space.
“Some of the things that Virginia Tech really lacks are alums that are philanthropic and also willing to give back, not only money, but their time and their energy,” said Derick Maggard, executive director of the Apex Center for Entrepreneurship. “Bart’s giving us all of those. He’s giving us time, he’s giving us knowledge, and he’s a philanthropic donor. You can’t make this stuff up when you have these types of alums who are willing to engage and help propel our center forward. It’s incredible.”
As for the future, Butler hopes to scale his businesses to the point where they can be managed from anywhere. That would allow him and his wife to purchase a place in Blacksburg for the purpose of allowing him to be more active on campus.
Hearing that doesn’t surprise Eggers. She sees no limit to Butler’s impact as an alumnus.
“I think there are any number of ways that Bart could make an impact at Virginia Tech,” she said. “This could just be the start of how he creates a legacy at the university.”
Given his love for building businesses and his love for helping Virginia Tech, Butler may never find himself enjoying a traditional retirement.
“You’re probably right,” he said, laughing. “There is no retiring. There may be reassessing or re-prioritizing, but there is not retiring. It’s just a matter of where I choose to spend my time.”
Butler easily could have spent his life on the streets of Washington, D.C., and he has paid prices for his successes. But thanks to some smart decisions and with the help of some good people, he has found redemption in his journey.
“I believe 10 percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is how you respond, and you choose the response,” Jamison said. “Like so many Black students who attended Virginia Tech during his era, Bart chose to make a difference despite some challenging odds — and this university is better because of it.”