Image
Eddie Butler

Remembering Eddie Butler (MML, 1976)

The whole Fitzwilliam community was shocked and saddened to hear last week of the sudden death of Eddie Butler (MML, 1976), at the age of 65.

Eddie was a Fitzwilliam legend, cherished by his contemporaries and loved by current students alike. A full obituary will follow, but we wanted to share a selection of short tributes and recollections from some of our members who knew him best.

First, Alastair Hignell CBE (History, 1974) reminisces on the scheme to recruit a young Eddie into the rugby squad…

“Eddie Butler arrived at Fitzwilliam at the start of my third year at the College. Very quickly, he became my friend, my team-mate in the University Rugby team and my driver (he’d arrived in his mum’s old Maxi, I think it was…). He also at times lent me his bike, even though my feet hardly reached the pedals, never mind the ground! Later, we became colleagues in journalism and had no difficulty recalling, and at times replicating, the joys of life at Fitz, with the Light Blues, on rugby tours…I will miss him

Here’s a poem about his first night at Fitz:

Eddie was a Billy, an Onion and a Prawn
Took to College life at Fitz, as to the manor born.
Studied French and Spanish, did more than gain a pass
But when it came to social life, was always different class.

A gangly youth from Pontypool, he bore a worried air
An oral in the morning, he thought he should prepare,
A first night beer seemed harmless, lemon top to slake his thirst
Then back to Spanish vocab, ‘t would take a final burst.

But older heads, not wiser, had seen the youngster’s size,
Dreams of Cuppers glory took shape before their eyes.
How best to snare him for the team before the Freshers’ fair
Could tempt him with some fancy stuff, with which they can’t compare?

I know said one, we’ll kill two birds, with logic unimpeachable
He’s struggling with his Spanish words, but surely they are teachable
At every sip, we’ll help him out, by shouting phrases Spanish
He’ll get them right and through the night, his doubts will surely vanish.

The rest, they say is history, and Eddie passed with ease
The College team had got their man, it really was a breeze
At cricket too, he had the skills, no chance of being a blocker
And with the Prawns, a natural fit, he shone at Cuppers soccer

(Yes)

Eddie was a Billy, an Onion and a Prawn
Took to College life at Fitz, as to the manor born.
Studied French and Spanish, did more than gain a pass
But when it came to social life, was always different class.”

Just like Alastair, fellow alumnus Dick Tyler (Law, 1978) recalls playing alongside Eddie,

“250 words? I’ll do my best. Eddie and I played two terms of rugby together: the first, for the university, including a Varsity Match; the second, en route to a Cuppers final. We lost that. If he was here, he’d tell you it still hurt.  15 games. It would have been more if he hadn’t been sent off in the second of them. I was at the bottom of a ruck, he was at the centre of the carnage above me.  What’s been said about Eddie as a player, as a writer, as a commentator, as the voice of montages, is all true. He did all those things intelligently, wittily and in his own way, the way he did everything.

For me, it’s not those things. It was the warmth of his ‘hello’ after no matter how long. He’d stand at the edge of the group but be the centre of it. He’d ask questions, listen to your answers and make you think. If you were brave enough for a debate, you’d get one. A thrusting finger, he stood his ground. Best of all were his speeches. In the hall at Fitz for our sports dinners; at The Savoy with the Hawks Club; wherever the university rugby club asked him to be. No notes. I listened hard and hung on tight. He’d say things only he had the words for and talk in the bar afterwards with everyone and anyone.

I knew 250 words wouldn’t be enough. 65 years weren’t.”

As for as the academic side of Eddie's Cambridge career, Professor Robert Lethbridge remembers teaching him for Part I French and recalls the insouciance with which Eddie coped with his supervisor's then 'fierce' pedagogic style! Many years later, when Robert was Master, and introducing Eddie at a Sports Dinner, he took the opportunity to congratulate him on the impeccable accent with which he named French players on the rugby field.  In due course, and in return, Eddie sent him one of his novels, suitably ironically inscribed.  What remained true, across the decades of Eddie's brilliant BBC commentaries, was the pride with which Robert pointed out to his children and grandchildren watching the TV with him that he had 'taught' him at Fitzwilliam.

As Dan Roan (SPS, 1995) – whose role as BBC Sports Editor meant many a professional collaboration with Eddie – says,

“He was a broadcasting legend and an inspirational colleague. 

His rugby commentary was of course informed by his experience and excellence as a top player. As a former captain of his country and British and Irish Lion, Eddie knew exactly what he was talking about. His words infused with an insight & passion that few could match. 

Just as iconic as his commentaries however, were his beautifully-scripted, poetic voiceovers, reviewing everything from Olympic Games to royal history. His mastery of language perfectly capturing the essence of many momentous events. 

And yet despite his awesome physical and professional stature, I always found him to be an approachable, friendly and smiling presence in the media tribune of whichever stadium I would sometimes encounter him in. 

A gentle giant, a true gentleman, Eddie was a credit to both Fitz and the BBC. A man who commanded the respect and affection of so many. It was an honour to call him a colleague.”

And so, just as he brought warmth and generosity to those with whom he played during his time at Fitz, Eddie continued to contribute to College life long after he graduated, always ready to step up and help, particularly with social events. Matt Rogan (MML, 1993) recalls the experience of conducting a live interview with Eddie for the College Sports Dinner in 2017,

“I was unusually nervous in preparation – principally because I saw him as one of the very best in the business. Whether commentating on international rugby or the London 2012 archery, writing the perfect montage to those same Games or thereafter some entertaining novels, I genuinely couldn’t find anything he had touched that hadn’t turned to gold.  

Fortunately, I’d met Eddie a few times previously. The last time had been between the hours of 11pm and 2am after a previous Sports Dinner, putting the world to rights with other sporty Fitz folk in Middle R. When we met to prepare for the interview, I felt at ease immediately. Quickly we cooked up a quick plan for the interview on the night, hoping to inspire in our guests, ‘40% smiles, 20% pride, 40% a desire to make it a very late night again.’ 

It just so happened that the interview fell during a period of some Cambridge sporting controversy. The Hawks Club were discussing opening their clubhouse to the Ospreys for the first time ever. As we were wrapping up our session with some questions and answers, Eddie was asked a slightly pointed question by one of the audience who was clearly less in favour of this move than most in the room. I knew this was the make or break moment for our evening.  Without even pausing for thought, Eddie responded that driving equality in sport had been a discussion point since the 19th Century, and that in his view there was no place for anything other than equal and open access to the whole of sport, let alone a clubhouse. 

A significant and sustained round of applause from across the room followed, which captured perfectly the spirit of Fitz sport we have all inherited. No time for privilege, politics or pettiness. Just friendship, empathy and a belief in the collective power of the special place we were sat in that night.  Eddie hit the brief single-handedly in twenty eloquent words. It was, once again, a very late night!”

Eddie’s commitment to the ongoing sporting life of the College was constant, and it is bittersweet that the final memory comes from Fitz students, Maya Hodgson (Geography, 2020) and Bethany Haran (Natural Sciences, 2020), the current President and Vice-President of the Fitz Sports & Societies,

“We were honoured to welcome Eddie back to Fitzwilliam College for our annual Sports Dinner this June. His effortless storytelling, warm nature and humour shone through his recollection of past times at Fitzwilliam. Eddie spoke of the longevity of our College community and the lifelong lessons he learnt during his time here. We all count ourselves incredibly lucky to have met him. While showing Eddie around College grounds, he was amazed by places such as the Olisa Library and it was clear how proud he felt to be back at a place that he said will always feel like ‘being back home’.”

Thank you, Eddie – you will be missed.

Eddie with Bethany and Maya at the Sports Dinner in 2022
Eddie with Bethany and Maya at Fitz in June 2022

 

 

LINKS

 

In 2020, Matt McGeehan interviewed Eddie for Fitz, you can read the article here: https://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/news/languages-and-rugby-interview-eddie-butler

BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/62919134

The Times*: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/eddie-butler-obituary-n0t8fb9xw

Eddie’s voiceover for UCS video in 2022: Sport Belongs to All (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIsHs1Pd_4E&t=8s)  

 

 

 

Other News
Fitzwilliam College notes and welcomes the Court’s decision today to refuse Christian Concern’s claim for judicial review.
A statement from Fitzwilliam College, following the death of HM The Queen
Fitzwilliam is delighted to announce the arrival this week of Hannah Fox, in the newly-created role of Director of Operations. This post replaces the previous role of Domestic Bursar, formerly held by Alan Fuller, who has now moved to the role of Head Porter.