George P. Butler: The Father of the Junior College of Augusta
Photos courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle
In december 1959 the Richmond County Board of Education voted to name the new school under construction in the Fleming area of Augusta the George P. Butler High School. A little over a decade later, Augusta College placed the Butler name on one of its renovated classroom buildings. Even though Major Butler had died in 1933, both were fitting recognitions of one of the most important figures in Augusta education in the early 20th century who laid the groundwork for educational advancement today.
Born on January 30, 1875, George Phineas Butler was the son of George Sr., a cashier at the Georgia Railroad, and his wife Margaret. Young George lost his father and his only sibling, a sister, as a young child and was raised alone by his widowed mother on Ellis Street. His childhood portended a life of service. He was active in the YMCA, heading up committees and holding leadership positions while in high school. He presented a paper at the Y state convention when he was only 15 years old. After graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in 1891, he attended the University of Georgia, graduating in three years with a record that put him in Phi Beta Kappa, in spite of the fact that he played football and served as captain of the team his last year. The following year, he served as a teaching fellow in mathematics at UGA and was the assistant principal of Athens High School. From 1895-1898 he was a graduate instructor in math at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he also worked with the U.S. Topographical Survey as an engineer.
His genius for math was demonstrated to the Augusta public a number of times over the years. In 1906 he took issue with an answer the chief of the weather bureau had provided to the question, “How cold is it when it is twice as cold as at two degrees above zero Fahrenheit?” Butler presented his solution and, when the bureau chief submitted a defense of his own answer, Butler took it apart, then provided several sources in physics to substantiate his answer. He concluded by quoting the end of the bureau chief letter, which said it was not customary for the bureau to “referee in such questions.” To which Butler replied, “Let us hope not.”
In 1898 Butler returned to his hometown, accepting a position as professor of mathematics and physics at his alma mater ARC with the additional assignment of reinstituting the school’s military department, which had been closed since 1888. He formed two companies that soon grew into four companies and totally revitalized the program. As commandant, he became “Major Butler,” a title by which he was known for the rest of his life. A 1901 Augusta Chronicle editorialist said that he was “the right man in the right place...an officer of splendid figure, soldierly bearing, high character and charming manners, just such an officer as is likely to inspire admiration.” His cadets became the pride of the academy and were called upon to drill and parade on many civic occasions. Every time the U.S. Army upgraded its military tactics and drilling procedures, Butler followed suit with his cadets.
Butler devoted his time, talents and energies to his community. He remained active in the YMCA, serving as a mentor, overseeing encampments for the boys, serving in leadership roles. He was also on the board of the Young Member Library Association, the forerunner to our public library system. His strong interest in football led him to become a collegiate football referee, officiating games for many years including state rivalries such as Georgia-Georgia Tech and interstate rivalries with Clemson and University of South Carolina. He also founded a local City of Augusta team and coached it in games with other city teams in Georgia and Carolina.
His athletic prowess included tennis and he played in many tournaments throughout his career and served on the founding board of the Augusta Tennis Association. His leisure time pursuits also included hunting and fishing. His talents didn’t stop with sports as he also acted in plays and participated in the then-popular tableaux. One review said that he “played the role of the young married man in a dignified and tender way that ought to go far to advance any ambitions he may have in that line.”
Religion was always a strong component of Butler’s life. A faithful member of First Presbyterian Church, he served as the Sunday school superintendent for more than two decades. He was also a leader in the community-wide Union of Sunday Schools. In October 1912, 29 Sunday schools participated in a rally day parade downtown with the Major in command. His work with Sunday schools of many faiths is testimonial to his acceptance of other paths. Twice he married in Methodist churches and in 1899 won the most popular contest between local military men at the Augusta Jewish Fair, beating his nearest competitor 445 to 330 votes, with all others trailing far behind. He delivered addresses at all the major churches in Augusta during his career.
On July 1, 1909, after an agreement between the trustees of Richmond Academy and the Richmond County Board of Education, the administration of ARC passed from Academy trustees to the BOE. The high school committee of the board, on the advice of school superintendent Lawton B. Evans, recommended that standards of instruction be raised to conform to entrance requirements at UGA and Georgia Tech. That led to a revision of the curriculum and establishment of five departments: ancient and modern languages, math and sciences, English and related disciplines, history and related fields, and business.
There were also industrial courses modeled after Georgia Tech and pre-medical college work. After all, the Medical College of Georgia was right next door on Telfair Street. Three of the new programs extended over five years of study instead of usual four, so graduates could enter the sophomore year at UGA without exam. At the end of 1909-1910 school year Col. Charles Withrow retired as principal to become chair of ancient languages, at which time George Phineas Butler, already well known as a leader in many areas, began his administration as principal.
Under Butler’s leadership, the school prospered and within a decade was beginning to outgrow its space, even after acquiring the property of the medical college when it moved in January 1913 to Railroad Avenue. As discussions for a new building began Lawton B. Evans and Butler had another item on the agenda—a junior college for Augusta. To pay for the proposed institution, the fifth years of ARC and Tubman High School for girls would close and the new two-year college would be co-ed, housed in the new ARC building. Students would pay a tuition of $100, cheaper, Butler pointed out, than having to pay to go away to school. For the poor who could not afford the tuition, the Major wanted scholarships from local civic clubs. Before taking his case to the board of education, Butler got endorsements for the junior college project from the regional accrediting agency (SACS) as well as from UGA, Georgia Tech, USC and Clemson.
His homework paid off: On August, 15, 1925, the Richmond County Board of Education approved the Junior College of Augusta, the first, and for a time only, junior college in the state. Butler was unanimously chosen as the college’s first president. He carefully began to put together his faculty of 11, all of whom were intellectuals. What had been the Augusta Training School for teachers merged with the college as the department of education and teacher training. Butler also secured an ROTC unit and hired the head of ROTC from the Citadel, and pre-medical courses shifted to the junior college. In October 1926 the Academy and the JCA moved into their new home on Baker Avenue. In December the Major successfully acquired accreditation for JCA.
For Major Butler the purpose of junior college was to prepare students for senior college. Scholastic requirements to enter were the same as UGA’s. Butler said he was not interested in large numbers, noting that restricted enrollment resulted in better records of successful work after students transferred. For the first three years about 175 boys and girls enrolled. Even as the junior college began to soar, Butler already had a goal to have two additional years leading to bachelor’s degrees. In fact, when young science professor LeConte Talley was hired in 1926, Butler told him that eventually he would teach in a four-year college in Augusta, which he did. Talley was still on faculty when Augusta College became a four-year institution.
In 1926 the Major received an honorary degree from UGA. Professor Talley called him Dr. Butler from that point on, but to everyone else he remained “the Major.” In December 1927 the civic clubs of Augusta honored Butler; faculty presented a joint resolution of praise for their leader and the president of UGA, a speaker for the event, said Butler’s work had been “nobly accomplished.” Butler replied that he accepted complimentary words on behalf of the institutions and himself lauded the efforts of Superintendent Lawton B. Evans and Tubman Principal T. Harry Garrett.
With his successful establishment of the Junior College of Augusta, Butler became an important figure in the two-year college movement around the country for the rest of his life. He worked tirelessly to make JCA a success, the “people’s college,” he called it. He wanted the college to meet the needs of the area. For example, he saw the “pre-medical courses leading directly into our Medical College here,” a prescient insight in light of the new program at Georgia Regents University.
In May of 1917, Major Butler lost his wife of 12 years, Livy, after a brief critical illness. For more than a decade, he remained a widower, devoting his time to his professional and community efforts. But at 53, he became enamored of ARC’s first professional librarian, Miss June Rainsford of Edgefield, S.C. They married in July of 1929 in a quiet ceremony at the home of the bride’s parents. “The plighting of Troth of this well-known couple is a happy culmination of a romance that dates its origins to the establishment of the junior college,” said the wedding announcement. The next spring Butler resigned, leaving the junior college in the capable hands of Dean James Lester Skinner.
The Butlers travelled extensively taking in Canada, much of the U.S. and Europe. But the Major was not content to spend all his time in leisure. The Butlers spent a year in California where the Major studied the many junior colleges, analyzing and reporting his findings in a thesis for UGA that earned him a master’s degree in 1932. The Butlers moved then to Chapel Hill, where Mrs. Butler did graduate work in botany at University of North Carolina while her husband became a consultant for the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools. Unfortunately, the Butlers’ happy and productive life together was ended far too early when, in November 1933, the Major died of a heart attack while engaged in one of his favorite pastimes—duck hunting. He was only 58, but left behind a lifetime of achievements and a model of a life well-lived. His legacy lives on today, entering a new phase as part of a major research university. The “Father of the Junior College Augusta” would be proud.