Tulsan Don T. Butler was a pivotal figure in BASS' beginnings
BY KELLY BOSTIAN World Outdoors Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/19/13 at 1:59 PM
CORRECTION: A story in the Feb. 17 Tulsa World had the incorrect location of Don T. Butler’s bait and tackle store. Butler’s store was located on Sheridan Road in Tulsa. This story has been corrected.
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Tulsa and BASS go way back, all the way to the beginning, when an Alabama insurance salesman named Ray Scott met a Tulsa lumberyard owner named Don T. Butler and a sports reporter by the name of Bob Cobb.
"I have warm feelings for Tulsa," BASS founder Ray Scott said in a recent phone interview. "There was always something about Tulsa. Don, of course, is a huge part of that ... The Classic being in Tulsa this year is great because it's kind of a birthplace of BASS."
Scott sold BASS to a group of investors in 1986. It passed to ESPN for a few years, and is again in the hands of angler/investors led by Jerry McKinnis of "The Fishin' Hole" television show fame. But as McKinnis and company bring the Classic to Tulsa, those old BASS roots are on the minds of many a Tulsan. BASS plans a historical tribute during the tournament this year.
The central figure in a tale Ray Scott has told time and again is the late Don T. Butler, businessman, angler, 1972 Bassmaster Classic Champion and the very first member of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.
In 1967, "the letter" was the springboard of the relationship.
Scott was struggling to get the 100 anglers he needed to promote his first big tournament, the All-American Invitation Bass Tournament at Arkansas' Beaver Lake. Memphis had a strong contingent of anglers but Tulsa, just 100 miles away, was "a dry hole," Scott said.
Scott encouraged Memphis bass buff and lure collector Clyde A. Harbin to write a letter to Tulsa Tribune outdoor writer Bob Cobb challenging Tulsa-area bass fishermen to "show proof in the creel you're for real."
The challenge hit Butler right where he lived. "Nobody ever fished with my dad, you fished against him," his son, Tom Butler, said, a dining table in front of him loaded with just a small sampling of items from his father's fishing collection, including his Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame induction plaque and a pile of scribbled-upon dollar bills and pesos.
"Every time you went out it was a dollar for the first fish, a dollar for the biggest and a dollar for the most," Butler said. "You signed the bill and gave it to him." The top bill on the stack, signed by the renowned angler Bill Dance, had the words "1st and Biggest."
Cobb remembered the call he received after he wrote about the Memphis letter. "I was at the sports desk," he said. "The voice on the phone said, 'You wrote that article in the paper yesterday about the fishing tournament?' I said 'yes,' and he said, 'Who is this loudmouth from Memphis, Clyde A. Harbin, and how do you get into that fishing tournament at Beaver Lake? My name is Don T. Butler.' "
Butler and Gordon Yetmen of Zebco pulled together a group that would become the Tulsa Bass Club. They lost at Beaver Lake, although they looked good in their matching green jackets.
It was Butler's first contact with Ray Scott and they became fast friends. At least twice more he would be a key figure in founding the organization, not only for interest in tournaments but for stopping pollution, improving conservation, youth fishing and introducing people to new tackle and techniques. "Don Butler was always there but he was not one for bragging, he just believed in what we were doing," Scott said.
The winter after the defeat at Beaver Lake, Scott went to Tulsa for a meeting with the bass club. He was ready to get BASS off the ground, but he needed members and money. He met with Butler and worked on his pitch at a cafe over a hamburger steak.
Driving around later he was still scribbling ideas on a piece of a brown grocery sack when Butler brought up the idea of dues. "He asked me how much I figured it would be for a membership and I hadn't really thought about it," Scott said. "So I said, 'ten dollars a year.' "
"Right there he pulled out a hundred dollar bill and said, 'how 'bout this for a lifetime membership. I want to be the first member ... We pulled over and I went into a dime store and bought one of those little receipt books and wrote him out a receipt right there. I still have it." It is dated Jan. 5, 1968.
That same night, Butler helped get the organization off the ground with its first official meeting at the Trade Winds Motel. Scott and Butler made their pitch to the group but they wanted to discuss it before deciding to join.
Cobb recalled the scene. "It's January and here is Ray Scott outside in the cold in his shirt sleeves with his ear up against the plate glass and it's cold, you know January in Oklahoma, the wind is blowing and there's nothing between you and it but a barbed wire fence."
Some in the group had doubts as to Scott's ability to deliver. "I heard Don loud. He said, 'because, he says he will, and he will!' That was the end of the discussion," Scott said.
"Don Butler was God's way of blessing me," he said. "I have never known another man that was more interested in seeing us succeed than Don T. Butler. He was no pussycat, he was a ballsy guy, he was a good man and when he believed in something he meant business."
Butler called Scott weekly for updates on the progress of BASS in months to come, he said. He came through again a few months later when Scott was again short of cash and desperate to get a mailing out to members and prospective members. He needed $10,000 and confided in Butler that he was flat broke and told him he had even tried to get the Post Office to give him an advance on the postage.
The next morning an anonymous wire arrived via Western Union. It was from Tulsa: no name, no explanation, no request for repayment. Scott knew Butler had wired the $10,000. "In exactly seven weeks I was able to pay him back," Scott said.
In 1972, the pair shared a rewarding moment as Butler weathered a downpour to pull a healthy bag of fish out of Percy Priest Lake near Nashville to become the second BASS Masters Classic champion, as it was then titled. Calling Butler up to receive the Classic trophy and winner's check for $10,000, Scott said, "It goes to a man who deserves it beyond any stretch of your imagination, Don Butler of Tulsa, Oklahoma."
He came from behind and won the contest with his own lure design, the Small Okie-bug, later the namesake for Butler's bait and tackle shop in Tulsa, a spot renowned in bass fishing circles and launch pad for countless Tulsa anglers for decades.
Scott and Butler remained friends and traveled the world, often with family, fishing for many years.
Cancer took Butler in 2004. "I was out to visit when he had the cancer and we knew he was dying," Scott said. "He got up out of his chair. He was frail. He said, 'You see my championship trophy there? I want you to have that because I wouldn't have it if it wasn't for you.' It was very touching, a touching thing, it meant that much to him and he wanted me to have it. I took that trophy home and that was the last time I saw Don Butler."
Original Print Headline: Ties to Tulsa
Kelly Bostian 918-581-8357
A faded photograph from Don Butler's personal collection shows him receiving the Bassmaster Classic trophy and $10,000 check from Ray Scott (right) at the 1972 tournament on Percy Priest Reservoir in Tennessee. TOM BUTLER / Courtesy
A scan of the receipt for $100 that Ray Scott filled out Jan. 5, 1968, for first BASS member Don T. Butler of Tulsa. RAY SCOTT OUTDOORS/Courtesy
A signed photograph in Don Butler's personal collection shows Ray Scott (left) and Butler when he won the 1973 Arkansas Invitation at Beaver Lake. It is signed "To Don Thanks for the best friendship! April 2001, Ray Scott." TOM BUTLER / Courtesy