Picking Up Butch

butch hartman

At Vermont's Middlebury College, one of the longest-running and deeply respected traditions is a ritual called "picking up Butch," CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman reports for Assignment America.

It's carried out by two or three freshman athletes before every home football and basketball game. And last weekend, the honor fell to Jamal Davis, Ashton Coghlan and Ryan Wholey.

"I had heard so much about it and other guys had done it," one aid. "It's kind of like a rite of passage I guess. If you're a freshman you pick up Butch."

The custom dates back to 1960, when a student did it for a football game. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, and yet nearly 50 years later they're still picking up Butch.

"It's kind of cool to know you're carrying on a tradition that's so big - and has been going on so long," one said.

How does the ritual go? It all begins, quite literally … by picking up a man named Butch at his home and setting him comfortably in his wheel chair.

The kids then bundle him up and wheel him off. Basketball players take him to football games and football players to basketball games.

"Thank you guys for doing this for me," Butch said.

Butch Varno was born with cerebral palsey. He was also born with Middlebury College blue in his veins.

Since that first kid gave him a ride back when Butch was 14, hundreds of students have brought him to thousands of games. Some, like one Hartman met named Kevin, are second-generation Butch picker-uppers.

"His father used to take care of me 30 years ago," Butch said.

It's pretty easy to tell how much Butch enjoys this tradition. But to understand how much he needs it, all you have to do is ask him where he'd be without these kids.

"I'm going to say this and I'm only saying it once," he said. "I would be severely depressed."

It's that big a part of his life?

"Yea, because that's the only thing I can do for fun," Butch said.

As for what the kids get out of it, obviously, a compassion for those less fortunate … perhaps an appreciation for what they have.

But more than anything: "He has such a positive outlook on life. He puts a smile on your face when you see him," one student said.

"I have a fun time just being with him," another student said. "It's great, It's a great feeling."

Funny, they call it "picking up Butch," but the truth is, Butch has picked up quite a few people himself.

"Next week, right?" one of the students asked.

"Of course, of course," the others said.

And now you don't even have to be an athlete to be part of the tradition. Recently the school started a club called "Butch's Team," where students get together and help Butch with physical therapy, tutoring, etc. In fact, not long ago Butch got his high school diploma.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.