If you’ve noticed something missing in The Durango Herald recently, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
“I still run into people at the grocery store who ask me, ‘Are you going to be back soon?’” said Ann Butler, who for nearly 20 years brought readers in Durango their daily news along with her weekly column, “Neighbors.”
“I guess that’s because I just fell into the abyss.”
The day after Christmas 2016, Butler suffered a stroke, which took her out of the newsroom. As she started to work parttime and get back into the swing of things, a series of setbacks caused her to officially leave the Herald in December 2017.
The disappearance of Butler’s byline in the Herald also marked the departure of one of the staff’s longest-tenured employees whose unmatched institutional knowledge (Butler is a native Durangoan) isn’t easy, or maybe even possible, to replace.
With the proverbial encyclopedia of Southwest Colorado knowledge no longer within earshot, all that reporters were left to do was fight over Butler’s coveted Rolodex, complete with contacts from all walks of life in town.
“It’s one of the best resources,” said Mary Shinn, who covers city government and health issues. “I think she wants it back ... but I just never want it to leave the building.”
These days, however, Butler, 62, is well on the path to recovery. And, she’s even starting her own business. It took some nudging, but she finally agreed to be the subject of the Herald’s weekly profiles of people in the community – a long-awaited and deserved recognition.
“It’s unbelievably weird to be sitting on this side of the story,” she said.
Butler joined the Herald in 2000, taking over the “Sally Says” column when longtime writer Sally Morrissey retired at the age of 80. Morley Ballantine, who, with her husband, Arthur, purchased the Herald in the 1950s, came up with the rebranded name of “Neighbors” for Butler’s feature piece.
Butler was later hired fulltime as a general assignment reporter and writer of colorful obituaries.
“It turned out to be a perfect job for me because I was very involved in the community,” Butler said. “I also have a pretty low boredom threshold, and every day was different. And I never wrote a story that didn’t matter to my community, so there was a sense of community service.”
But before Butler found her calling as a journalist, she had a happy upbringing in Durango when it was still considered a small town, which evolved into a life full of international travel.
Butler’s biological father died when she was 2, and her mother, Kathy, remarried to a consulting geologist, Charlie. The couple were deeply involved in the community and local nonprofits, a trait they passed on to their daughter.
In seventh grade, Butler’s teacher told her parents she had a gift for language. By that time, she had developed her lifelong love and passion for Spanish, driven in part by her “hatred of being left out of the conversation,” she said.
Her parents made a point to make sure Butler was aware there was a world outside Durango. They started a student exchange program (Butler both hosted and traveled abroad) and vacationed outside the country whenever possible.
“At that time, Durango was really isolated, and I was fortunate to have parents make the effort,” she said.
Butler graduated Durango High School in 1973 with a class of 350 kids, which at the time was the school’s largest class. In college, she earned a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and then received a master’s in international business.
She has traveled to Europe and explored most of Mexico and Central America. She became fluent in French and Portuguese. She worked for an ad agency in New York City, for a marketing firm in Michigan and at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder.
Her long-term plan was to work and live abroad. Health reasons, however, brought Butler back home to Durango in 1989 – though not unwillingly.
“When I was 17, I couldn’t wait to see Durango in the rearview mirror,” she said, “but when I hit my 30s, I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Like most tried and true Durangoans, Butler spent the next couple years working odd jobs. She helped out the UCI World Mountain Bike Championships as an interpreter, was a substitute teacher and even produced an instructional video for learning Spanish.
Just before Christmas 1993, however, her parents hit black ice on the way home from Denver, near the turnoff for Chimney Rock National Monument. Her mother died in the crash, and Charlie suffered serious brain injuries.
Butler spent the next seven years intensively caring for him to the point she was making herself sick. Family and friends urged and helped Butler place him in a home in Cañon City that specialized in brain injury and mental illness.
“When you’re an only child, it all falls on you,” Butler said. “But they (the center) were so kind and good to him. It was a huge blessing.”
About a month later, Morley Ballantine came knocking.
“Morley said I’m someone with a foot in the old timers’ camp and a foot in the newcomers’ camp, and that’s hard to find,” Butler said. “I had never taken a journalism class ... but Morley thought I had style.”
Richard Ballantine, chairman of the board of Ballantine Communication Inc. and Morley’s son, said Butler has a reputation for knowing everyone in town. She also was able and willing to pass a lot of her knowledge onto other reporters.
“She has that gift of easily being able to establish rapport, which always results in a good story,” he said. “Ann knows how to give individuals and their organizations and projects the personal detail and context which make for interesting reading.”
Over the years, Butler has seen and covered it all, dealing with issues of homelessness, suicide and education, among all the other stories that have landed on her cluttered desk. On the lighter side, she kept tabs on local happenings and nonprofit work in her “Neighbors” column.
“You know when you’re reading her stuff, it comes from a place of vast local knowledge,” said John Peel, a former Herald editor. “She would be there sometimes 10 hours a day, working away while going through some really hard times.”
For seven years, from 2010 to 2017, medical issues forced Butler to walk in a boot and use crutches. Regardless, she’d power through the difficulties of her disability to get to late-night meetings or cover breaking news.
“It was a job I was passionate about, that I was meant for,” she said. “I loved being in the loop, frankly. And I miss the conversations in the newsroom. It became my identity in many ways. Everywhere I went, I was ‘Ann Butler from the Herald.’ I still catch myself answering the phone that way.”
But Butler says she’s now on the upside of her recovery, and it feels like she’s getting her life back. Through physical therapy, she’s building up her stamina, and she should be walking freely on her own by the end of summer.
And she’s staring a new business. Fittingly, she’s directing her dedication and passion for community service to starting a website that’s basically a one-stop shop for local nonprofits.
And with an estimated 300 to 400 nonprofits in the area (she should know, she did a story about it), she says there’s a need to have a comprehensive resource for nonprofit events and happenings.
“It’s a thriving part of our community and a way we come together to make a difference for the better,” she said. “And in this day and age, that’s more important than ever.”
But for now, you can still run into Butler around town, at the grocery store or at one of her favorite places: trivia. Fun fact: Butler was on “Jeopardy!” in the 1990s. She didn’t win, and it still irks her.
“It was a $1,000 clue and they asked who the first woman astronaut in space was and I knew it was Valentina Tereshkova,” she said. “But I second-guessed myself ... and I’m still mad at myself for that.”