Tom Butler has lived in the same home in Tarrytown for 34 years. He describes the 1909-built house as having “good bones – but we had to gut-renovate it. It took a year and I remember our neighbors asking if, having dismantled it, we knew how to put it together again.” It was the wrong question for a man with an education and career in architecture, planning, construction and interior design.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Butler studied interior architecture, and city and regional planning, at the Pratt Institute. He also attended NYU, Harvard, and the University of Manchester in England.
His career has been in construction, notably with AECOM Tishman in New York City, but what also jumps out on his impressive resume is 35 years of service with the U.S. Army — 5 years as an enlisted soldier, and 30 years as an officer. He retired with the rank of Colonel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Reserves.
A FIRST FOR TARRYTOWN
Butler’s move from Brooklyn to the Village in 1984 was made because he was looking for a good place to raise his family. “At the time I didn’t know too much about Westchester, but we wanted to have a different life and Tarrytown seemed like the most diverse place we saw.” Butler is the first African American Mayor in the history of the Village of Tarrytown.
The Butlers’ choice now seems like a fortunate confluence of person and place. Butler found a community that felt right for him, and that community has now elected him to succeed Drew Fixell, who served as mayor for the past 15 years. Fixell was elected in 2005, in the same election that saw Butler named as a Trustee.
At a September Board of Trustees meeting, during which Mayor Butler, Deputy Mayor Rebecca McGovern, and new Trustee David Kim were sworn in, many tributes were paid to Fixell [see story HERE].
Fixell’s are sizable shoes to fill, as Tarrytown Trustee Karen Brown confirmed: “Everyone agrees that Tarrytown changed only for the better during [Drew’s] time. He helped usher in a period of growth and expansion, and I learned a lot from him.”
Both Brown and Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner see Butler as an excellent replacement, “A very good choice to carry us through these divisive times,” said Brown. Feiner describes the new mayor as “Very dedicated. He will do a great job and Tarrytown will continue to be a great community.”
That is clearly Butler’s ambition. He has a high regard for the Village and what it has to offer. “I want to see Tarrytown moving forward,” he told River Journal. “We need affordable housing as a means of keeping our seniors living here. We need to continue to control development, to keep Tarrytown the destination it has become. When I moved here, Main Street wasn’t impressive, the Music Hall wasn’t thriving. But now they are and we want to keep it that way.”
His model, he say, boils down to three things: unity, understanding, and respect. “If we all can adhere to those, we can all get along. There’s always a solution to a problem, we just have to figure it out. We may not all agree, but we must respect each other. That’s how I was raised.”
The military mindset is perceptible, but Butler is fully aware of the difference between the army’s top-down way of doing things and the political, inclusive way. “The latter takes a little longer,” he says.
TOP 3 PRIORITIES
In a statement after his swearing in, Butler touched on three pressing priorities that concern him. “They are all interrelated.” Firstly, there’s the pandemic. “Most people understand the message,” he says, stressing the need for masks and social distance, “and should do what they need to do to protect themselves. We’re in a very precarious situation, and need to be aware of the magnitude of the crisis, of the importance of listening to the science.”
Secondly, on the question of protests, Butler points out that the constitution allows for free speech and everyone has the right to rally and demonstrate, “But they need to respect our community if they want to do so.”
And thirdly, on the question of police reform, and in response to Governor Cuomo’s new guidance, the Village has already set up both a steering committee and a stakeholders’ committee, in an effort to improve policy.
“We have an excellent police force, and the police chief [John Barbalet] has done an outstanding job,” Butler observes, referring to his military background as a means of assessing performance. “He understands what he’s supposed to do and how to do it.”
With his long experience of both civilian and military roles, of practical creativity and disciplined management, Butler undoubtedly brings a new style, but also solidity and accessibility, to the mayoral role. “I’m an upfront person,” he asserts. “If I don’t know something, I’ll ask somebody. And I listen pretty well.”
Elsbeth Lindner is Editor of River Journal.