Forty years ago, “Ordinary People” unfolded a story of a well-heeled North Shore family confronting unspeakable grief—the fatal accident of the eldest teenage son.
First-time Director Robert Redford won an Oscar Award for his sensitive portrayal of a family dealing with—but mostly not dealing with—grief so debilitating that it paralyzed and blocked any appearance of emotion and hindered the ability to lean on loved ones and heal.
That same month in North Beverly, a strikingly similar, real tragedy crippled a core group of close friends who, thankfully, did scream their lungs out in terror, grieve, lean on each other and begin a healing process that continues to this day.
A death notice was published in the Chicago Tribune, “James P. ‘Jamie’ Butterfield, 16, suddenly …” and listed other information.
The same night as the Academy Awards, March 31, 1981, multitudes of parish members from Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, located in North Beverly at 92nd Street and Hamilton Avenue, walked to Heeney Funeral Home at 95th Street and Hoyne Avenue to pay their respects.
Had they not come together and cried until their guts hurt, they would likely not be in each other’s company and care now, nor would they have become the extraordinary people they are in March 2021.
On Friday nights and Saturdays during the pandemic, friends of Butterfield have gathered at the Butterfield family home on the 9100 block of South Claremont Avenue. Their respective walks of life are left at the door as they don work clothes to restore the family home of their dear friend who died while playing with them in the Dan Ryan Woods.
Beverly natives Jamie Lawler, Bill Mulchrone, Bill Becker and Mike Whealan pooled their money to buy the Butterfield home after the death of Butterfield’s parents. They closed the purchase in the fall of 2020.
As stewards of the project, they operated like general contractors, doing most of the work themselves and hiring subcontractors for specialty work to bring everything up to code to sell the home.
Their own kids pitched in with skilled labor and the kind of advance “grunt work” that expedites the installation of new flooring, a basement bathroom, plumbing, electrical wiring, plastering, painting and finishing touches.
Sons Billy and Matt joined Becker, Butterfield’s best friend.
“My boys are just loving being here,” said Becker, a carpenter. “Now, they know all about Jamie and what he meant to us.”
Those gathering on March 20, coincidentally the spring equinox, realized this was their final walk-through of the Butterfield home as the project comes to an end and the infamous March 29, 1981, date approaches.
“It was never about the money invested but about the journey to get here,” said Mulchrone, one of four who gifted seed money for the purchase. “It was revisiting everything. It affected us all, and this does bring closure.”
The friends coined their effort as “The Jamie Project” and pledged that no pandemic or dragging of feet would quash their plans for a spring completion.
During a recent tour of the house, Becker described the first September inspection after closing the purchase. He said he was bewildered, in part, by the level of disrepair but more so by what remained intact.
At the top of the stairs, a sign, “Jamie’s Room,” was still affixed to the old wooden door. Inside, the room was like an old photograph—time standing still—exactly as each friend remembered it as a 16-year-old.
The consensus of the friends was that Butterfield’s parents, Patrick and Lois, held so dear to “their Jamie” that it was as if their boy never left or that he might return.
“Even the beds,” Whelan said, “were right where we remembered.”
The Butterfield home was like others in their close-knit neighborhood—doors had locks, but they were rarely in use during the day.
On the first floor, the friends saw the round, undistinguished kitchen table, a kind of lightening rod for the family and visitors who brought the kitchen alive.
With Jamie’s parents off to work on mornings before school, his classmates would arrive. Becker said he enjoyed making toast for himself and waiting at the table for Jamie before they walked to Christ the King Elementary School.
Spread across the old table on March 20 was a collection of materials that overflowed with memories for the old friends. It was said that Jamie’s mother poured over the collection throughout her remaining years.
The collection included another glimpse into the teenager’s gifts, a book titled “Reflections: Jamie Butterfield was …” Its pages are filled with tributes.
“Everyone who met him fell in love with him.”
“He was willing to share himself.”
“When I learned that Jamie died, I felt cheated.”
Butterfield’s own words in an elementary school essay reflect his charming personality.
“My family likes to laugh,” he wrote, “and have a good time.”
This year at the house, on the first Saturday of March, there was more activity than usual. Butterfield’s older brother, Tom, by 7 years, had “gathered himself” to make an emotional return to his boyhood home to see what his little brother’s friends were up to now.
What Tom saw was remarkable even to him, someone who never underestimated his brother’s circle of friends.
Tom’s arrival on that sunny and unseasonably warm March 6 had a celebratory feel. His final days living in the home were spent as a caretaker for his father, who eventually died in hospice care.
As Tom entered the front door into the living room, he was met with two oversized oil portraits of Jamie.
Displayed proudly on the mantelpiece, the likenesses were completed in 1982 by two of Jamie’s friends, who were 17 at the time and unaware of the other’s artistic homage to Jamie’s spirit.
Tom Brennan’s portrait arrived at the house in 1983, and Whealan’s was a more-recent addition. The pairing was in perfect harmony with all the labors of love going on throughout the house during the previous months.
“Only in Beverly, right?” said Margaret Houlihan Smith, who likely has the best perspective.
Her family moved to Wilmette, Ill., shortly after Jamie Butterfield’s death, and she returned to Beverly to raise her family with her husband, Jim.
Still known as “Hooie,” a nickname pinned on her by Jamie Butterfield, she lived directly across from his home. The two enjoyed evening phone chats while sitting by their bedroom windows so they could wave to each other.
Smith said moving to Wilmette offered a bit of emotional relief.
“I didn’t have to look at Jamie’s house every morning,” Smith said, “and think about his death.”
Tom Butterfield eagerly continued his tour of the restoration and entered the backyard.
If not for some 2-by-4 pieces, old plumbing pipes and discarded building equipment strewn about, visitors might think they’d arrived at a bridal shower or birthday party.
The mood was upbeat. Friends were gathered around a fire pit, and others were busy preparing a feast over two hot grills. Cans and bottles of beer were being kept cold in a pile of snow remaining from a February blizzard.
Because Tom knew and admired Jamie’s classmates, faces and names were still familiar—and a welcome sight.
This was the group that had never played softball but entered a men’s league as “All the King’s Men” and dedicated the championship season to Jamie. Some sported their title jackets around college.
“What a tribute this is by Jamie’s friends, to do all this,” said Tom, who then began to reminisce.
“We moved into this house in 1971, August 1st,” said Tom. “My parents couldn’t afford it, but they figured out a way to pay for it. It was their dream.”
Tom’s musings sent the calendar years ahead briskly and brought him to the tragedy of Saturday, March 29, 1981. His voice dropped to a murmur and trailed off completely as he moved toward a chair to rest near the fire pit.
That ill-fated day was also the scheduled ACT college assessment exam, the spring version for juniors heading to college. Both the Jamies—Butterfield and Lawler—signed up to take the test at De La Salle High School and drove to 35th Street and Michigan Avenue.
Quigley Seminary South classmates, the two planned to meet the rest of their friends after the test at the Dan Ryan Woods parking lot, near the 91st Street entrance at Longwood Drive.
That afternoon’s casual gathering was not unlike many of the others, good friends exchanging laughs and jibes, but this get-together also provided release from the stress of the morning’s test.
The fun between friends led to horseplay and a freak accident while playing with a knife.
Butterfield was rushed to the hospital in a police car. At the Little Company of Mary Hospital emergency room, the friends waited into the darkness to see Butterfield. They left when he was admitted for the night.
The next morning, word came: Butterfield died at around 2 a.m.
As news spread, parishioners gathered at the church on that Sunday afternoon to console and to be consoled. People familiar with the events at the woods, and those not, young and old, spoke fondly of a young man only 16.
Butterfield’s friends were inconsolable. Emotionally drained and hardly equipped at such young ages to confront such terrible misery, the group floundered all day.
A young priest from the parish wisely sought out and found the group in a corner of the neighborhood. He invited them back to a community room at Christ the King.
There, the tight-as-a-drum group dove deeper into their unsettled feelings under the care and guidance of the Rev. Dennis O’Neill, who many people described as a “progressive priest.”
Lawler said O’Neill helped them.
“Just talking about Jamie was so helpful,” he said. “It galvanized this group.”
“Fr. O’Neill didn’t shame us,” he said, “for doing the things that young people do.”
The friends’ lengthy grieving process continued during the remainder of their junior and senior years.
“Fr. O’Neill put in a stereo and a pool table and named the room ‘Jamie’s Room,’” said Whealan. “We continued to go there all through high school.”
Given this astonishing bond, people who didn’t know Jamie Butterfield might fathom him as otherworldly, but still present—a young angel, gone from this earth at age 16, who bargained with his maker to stay cocooned in the loving inner circle of his friends so he could look after them.
Jamie’s cousins, Christine and Marty Butterfield, believe that.
The two were instrumental in helping Tom Butterfield find buyers for the distressed property, a victim of neglect rooted in sorrow. They arrived in time for the last walk through.
“The Becker name came up during real estate discussions, and Tom perked up,” said Marty Butterfield.
When the puzzle was solved on how he would “move” the house, Tom remarked: “That’s Jamie looking out for me.”
Lawler said the recent gathering was wonderful.
“This is about a group of friends who came together to break bread, have a few beers and pay tribute to a good friend who is still in our minds and our hearts today,” said Lawler, who, like the others, shunned credit for a plan well-played.
Last week, the four principal players in the project announced the Jamie Butterfield Scholarship, and it will go to a Christ the King student whose family has endured recent hardship.
“We don’t remember the 40th anniversary of Jamie’s death,” Whealan said, “but rather the beginning stage of never forgetting his life and how he lived it to the fullest as an example to all of us for the rest of our lives.”