Mr. Butler's Neighborhood

By
Conrad Dillon

Dateline
Updated Tue, Aug 6, 2013 2:23 pm

Since 1988, John Butler has been teaching field sound recording and mixing techniques at the Ohio University School of Film.

In addition to his work as an audio design engineer (audio systems for Newark, Kennedy and LaGuardia airports) and a consultant (Nigerian and Liberian Television Networks), Butler's impressive C.V. includes numerous films and TV programs, including National Geographic specials and WQED's Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where he even appeared as a special guest in one episode.

Despite his many professional accomplishments, Butler counts working with his current and former students among his greatest achievements, and is actively involved with School of Film alumni relations.

In 2002, Ohio University TCOM (now Media Arts & Studies) student Conrad Dillon was enrolled in John Butler's Sound Mixing class. For his final project, Dillon visited Butler's former colleagues at WQED to record voices from his instructor's past. Along the way, he spoke with Fred Rogers and some of the characters from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. This is the story behind the recording.

I had only known John Butler for a year in the fall of 2002, but he was already one of my favorite teachers. As an audio major, I was an outsider at Lindley Hall; one of the strangers occasionally milling about known to the film students as "those TCOM kids."

It didn’t help that during my first semester there, I convinced an outgoing lab assistant to tell me John’s highly confidential middle name in exchange for some gas money to help get him to Iowa. Word got around quick that one of "those TCOM kids" had paid off a TA for John’s middle name and the film students were significantly less enthusiastic than I was about the whole thing.

John Butler and Fred Rogers

Almost every Wednesday night for a year-and-a-half, I would join eight other "TCOM kids" in the Peterson Sound Studio to hear John talk about his career, film production, creative recording techniques and problem solving.

John always had a rough exterior, but you knew deep down he genuinely cared for every one of his students. It wasn’t until three semesters passed when John called to ask if I wanted to work on a thesis film--a project that would require me to be alone in the woods with a dozen film students for several weeks--that I knew I had finally broken through to him.

It was actually a project for my TCOM field recording class, ironically, that gave me the opportunity to honor John. I started off lugging around a huge R-DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder and a mini-boom mic, covertly recording students and faculty at thesis screenings and late nights at Lindley Hall.

One night, feeling particularly daring, I hollowed out an old textbook and placed a handheld R-DAT machine inside of it, ran mic cables through my clothes and taped a lavelier mic to the side of my shoe. Then, sitting right next to John in class, I was able to record him talking for over an hour.

Later, John would say he knew I was recording the whole time, but didn’t want to say anything. Of course, we all know that is completely untrue. We can only imagine what John would do if he found out someone was secretly recording him.

Arranging an interview with Mr. Rogers and all of John’s friends at WQED was surprisingly easy. There was no Facebook or Twitter then, but if you called the number listed on the website of Mr. Rogers’ production company, the phone would be answered by David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the classic childrens' show.

Fred Rogers and Conrad Dillon, 2002

As it turned out, David and Fred didn’t just want to be a part of my John Butler project, they wanted everybody else at WQED to be a part of it, too. I drove up to Pittsburgh with my girlfriend, one of John’s film students, on a sunny day in late October. We met everybody at WQED and they all had a story about John to share. David and Fred showed us an old set from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and told us to help ourselves from the giant bowl of popcorn in the middle of his conference table.

I believe it is accurate to say it is one of the last interviews Mr. Rogers ever gave. The interview was done in late October/early November 2002 and he passed away shortly after in February 2003.

Mr. Rogers was even more genuine in person than on television, and I can't stress that enough. You'd think someone who is so kind and caring on TV might just be playing a character, but he truly was one of, if not the most, genuinely warm and caring people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

When we got back to Athens, I put everybody’s stories together. One November evening before the end of the semester, the usual Wednesday group assembled in John’s studio a few minutes earlier than usual. We prepped the file on the sound system and when John walked in, we pressed play, and just sat and listened to it. I still remember John’s face when it was over.

I listen to that recording now, more than a decade later, and think about how all the people I interviewed are just from a brief period in John’s life. Every year, new students come to the film school and get the privilege of working with him, learning from him, and becoming one of the many students whose lives he’s touched.

Conrad Dillon (BS '03) is an attorney and musician in Dayton, Ohio. He knows John Butler's middle name and he's not telling.

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