Vonn Butler: An Appreciation

By Michael Berryhill

In 2013 Vonn Butler returned to Texas Southern University to complete his bachelor’s degree. Sixteen years earlier, he had dropped out of the School of Communication not because he was failing but because he was making six figures using the new digital technology to promote music, movies and entertainment. He moved to Los Angeles and made a wide web of connections all over the country.
Then he hit a ceiling. Someone wanted to hire him for a big job, but he lacked a college degree, so he decided to come back and get one. He was 41 years old. He wasn’t the first middle-aged student to come back to TSU, but he was one who gave back more than he got.

When Vonn started his studies again, we realized he had come back to do more than get his degree. He was an entrepreneur at heart and he brought those qualities to the School of Communication. The problem with academia is that it moves too slowly to keep up with the pace of change. Vonn could look around and see the obsolete cameras and computers and software, our slow adaptation of new apps and grow agitated. We needed the agitation and I welcomed it. He knew how to use Flipboard to create an anthology for student reading. He seemed to be reading all night on his iPad and constantly posting interesting stories. He understood that the Internet is creating a whole new set of pressures on both the news and business life. It had made so much good information so easily available, that to fail to get things right, to fail to understand what is going on, is almost a fault in character. What do you mean you don’t know? You didn’t look it up? You’re not current on the latest developments and it’s so easy to find out?

He was very worried that our students lacked the digital and professional skills to make it in the 21st century because he saw in technology the possibilities of entrepreneurship that could liberate African Americans. He especially worried that students weren’t motivated and hard working enough. He was worried about their attitude toward success, and he wanted to do something about it. And he wasn’t about to let the ignorance of the faculty hold us back. He was on fire to create change.

He told me that he was a preppie, naïve young man from Clear Lake when he transferred to TSU in 1993 after a year at San Jacinto Junior College. His academic record was uneven. He didn’t seem to have much use for the introductory class in communication theory, which he had to take several times. He was too busy working on the practice, which the theory hadn’t kept up with.

During the 1990s the Internet and email were evolving into the dominant change agents that are so familiar to us now. Vonn saw what was happening and jumped aboard. Although he was physically younger that I am, he was digitally older because he had lived with the questions and opportunities longer. I saw computers as great for typing and research, but Vonn saw their transformative social and economic possibilities.

Texas Southern was a vibrant, active campus in the 1990s, with parties and concerts and a vivid campus life. Vonn dived right in. He was skinny then, and wore Polo shirts and khakis and had a high crowned Afro. At first his best friend, John Tucker, thought Vonn was smug and opinionated. But he could always refer you to a book or a movie or to other people. He was a connector, like the technology he learned to use.

“If he needed to learn it,” Tucker said, “he learned it. And he made sure that he surrounded himself with the brightest people.” One of his partners from the time, Marc Newsome, said, “He knew how to find people and tell them what he wanted. He was very good at connecting people. He had a natural gift.”

TSU had two computer labs then, one in the library and another in Hannah Hall where Vonn and his classmates stayed late and communicated through chat rooms and built websites. They used the new technology to design and print flyers and t-shirts to promote parties and concerts. When people came to events, Vonn collected their email addresses for future promotion.

Tucker and group of students shot a movie called “21 Crunk Street” with the acting president James Douglas on camera. With Vonn leading, they promoted and marketed the movie and sold tickets to a packed Sawyer Auditorium.

History seemed to repeat itself last February, when Vonn learned of an HBCU initiative from Fox productions to promote its film, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” Vonn brought to campus director John Singleton and actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. for a showing, and a lot of things went wrong. There was a struggle to get the right projector. The microphones didn’t work so the guests had to shout. But the auditorium was packed and Butler had pulled it together in three weeks. He counted the event a win. And he vowed to do more.

That was Vonn, Denise Hamilton, said. “He was the most optimistic pessimist I ever met. He always thought you needed to do more. He wanted you to challenge yourself. His passion was infectious. He made you think it can’t turn around without you. He always believed he could overcome the challenges.”

Vonn didn’t wait for permission. He acted. When computers needed software, he got the passwords and installed it himself. When podcasts became hot, he created a course, charged students $50 for equipment and bought a mixer, four microphones and tables. He took charge of the technology for Communication week and put a student team together. When he saw that students weren’t taking advantage of the huge digital technology conference, South by Southwest, he rounded up some money and took several to Austin. And woe to the student who goofed off. He couldn’t stand it when students failed to take advantage of opportunities, when they didn’t invest in themselves.

He wanted for students and for the School of Communication what he wanted for himself. It was simple, one of his friends said: “He was in love with his future.”

Now that he has been taken away from us, we who knew him are his future.

At our meeting to plan for Vonn’s memorial services, one of his students brought up the idea of a vow as a way to remember him. Students would vow to make something better of themselves, to make Vonn proud of them.

I’m with them. His motto, back in the day, still resonates: “Why not us, why not now?”