Remembering Bob Button

Maggie Quinn, Copy Editor

To many people, Bob Button was a variety of things– a husband, father, friend, and mentor. But one of the things that is remembered the most for anyone that knew him was role as a teacher and advisor to The Tower newspaper from 1966 to 1994.

“Making the Tower staff was like a varsity sport, only with words,” said Phoebe Wall Howard ‘84, one of many of Button’s students who also wrote for The Tower. “The whole school would be dark except our production room all lit up late at night. We worked on stories around the clock, arguing and laughing brainstorming ideas. It was a tight network of students from different circles– athletics, arts, nerds– who came together to tell stories.

For Kristin Button Wright ‘88, being a student in the same building that her father taught was a strange process, but one that she considered herself lucky to be associated with– even if it became embarrassing at times.

“It’s kind of a weird little position to be in with your parent in the building all the time,” Wright said. “Mainly I remember being grateful that he was popular, that he was the teacher that was well-liked instead of the opposite– I had a classmate whose parent wasn’t the teacher that wasn’t quite so beloved, and I remember thinking what a relief that was. Even so, he had the ability to embarrass me. He used to wear these plaid pants– this was the 1980s. And these plaid pants looked like something out of 70s, but were also sort of weirdly loud, preppy-type style, and he used to wear them, I swear once a week. And the more that I told him I was embarrassed, the more that he wore them.”

As a teacher, Button was known for his dedication to journalism, often using the influence of the teenage psyche to inspire his students to take chances and create content that was inspired by important topics of the era, which traditionally may not be discussed in high school newspapers.

“I wrote about teen drinking on weekends, public displays of affection at school, parties, and student protests,” Howard said. “One of my favorites was about a foreign exchange student who said that they went to the grocery store and thought the produce section was a movie set– they’d neer seen so much fruit. I broke another story about the Detroit Zoo’s funding that got picked up by Detroit-area radio and television stations and newspapers.”

When remembering his time as a teacher at South, Wright remembers the significance of what it was like to have a parent that was both a teacher and a journalism advisor, and how it influenced the relationship between father and daughter in a variety of ways.

“We could discuss the events of the day together, such as ‘So-and-so got sent to the principal’s office for X,’ and we both knew about it because it was gossip and we could share that,” Wright said. “Another thing that he was known for was that he had cooler music taste than I did in high school. He always knew bands and musical artists that his students would tell him, and then I would find out through my dad, which is not really the way most teenagers find out about their musical taste. But I remember that I heard about The Police and Sting from him and my friends, but I was a teenager at the time when I should have known about them first.”

With his role in journalism, he was able to influence many students to follow their paths into the career of journalism. One of the many students that were influenced to follow in the journalism footsteps included Howard, who is now an auto industry reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

“Mr Button put me on a career path at age 15.” Howard said. “I went on to an award-winning career working in radio, television, and print. It was his confidence in me that helped me to pursue my dreams.”

Even in the decades after she graduated from high school and her father left his position at South, Wright never fully admitted to realizing how much of an impact that her father left on the journalism community until he passed away on December 24, 2021, and the amount of media attention it had received.

“I don’t think I knew until he died that he was quite so beloved,” Wright said. “I have to admit to being a little shocked to get a call from a Detroit Free Press reporter on Christmas Eve, wanting to do a story. And not just a story, but a full-page article in the news. And then to get emails and texts and messages on Twitter from people with blue checks that have won Pulitzer Prizes, and I have to admit to being a little shocked that people from the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association and a couple other national organizations that messaged me to say he was a ripple that changed their communities. To me, he was just my dad.”

For Howard, the impact that Button left on his students has been felt far and wide, with his legacy having helped many people pursue careers in the media, decades after he had first originally taught journalism.

“Bob Button was a man whose legacy illustrates the power and importance of teachers,” Howard said. “He encouraged students to think beyond what they imagined possible. A man who wrote to me that when he heard Button died, he stood on a street in New York City with tears streaming down his face. Because we loved him so.”