Out of This Year's Commencement, 'a Story of Grace'

Mike Shapiro, father of graduating senior Max Shapiro, calls the tale behind a scholarship his son received his freshmen year through the University of St. Thomas – the Cole Butler Memorial Scholarship − “a story of grace.”

The grace of which he speaks traces back to Gail Butler, mother of Cole Butler ’02, a varsity basketball star at St. Thomas who died in a 2005 snowmobile accident.

Gail will attend this weekend's spring commencement ceremony as a guest of the Shapiros. Mike said her attendance shows "an element of grace that we don't see too often. It's an honor to have her join us."

Cole Butler '02, in white

Cole Butler '02, left, in a game against Macalester. Photo from the 2002 Aquinas.

The annual scholarship, awarded to a Rochester, Minn., student of good academic standing, who demonstrates financial need and who was active in high school athletics and/or extracurricular activities, was established in 2006 by three of his friends: Ted Swanson ’01, who played basketball with Cole at St. Thomas, and Michael Zirbes and Alex Seibenaler, Rochester Lourdes High School friends of Cole. The trio raises the majority of the funds through the Cole Butler Classic, an annual golf tournament held in Rochester each summer, though Gail and a few of her relatives have since become regular contributors.

When Mike first saw the scholarship listed on one of Max’s freshman tuition bills, Cole’s name rang a bell. “I thought I knew the name, but I couldn’t figure out how,” he said. He couldn’t let the feeling go, and it wasn’t until a few days later, while talking about the scholarship with a friend, that he finally was able to connect the dots. “My friend said, ‘You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Gail’s son, and you’ve met him.’”

Years earlier, Mike had been introduced to Cole through his friend Pat Brooks, who was Gail’s husband at the time and Cole’s stepfather. Brooks has helped with the tournament – cooking steaks, driving golf carts and picking up the T-shirt tab – since its inception. Mike remembered their introduction clearly. “I have a pretty good eye for kids − I was head of the PTA at Max’s middle school,” Mike said, “and Cole was one of those kids who was paying attention … he had all those good pieces.”

Taken aback by the tragic coincidence that connected his family to Gail's, he felt compelled to reconnect and thank her personally. “It was a tough phone call to make, but it was beautiful,” he said.

"It wasn't lost on me that out of her unthinkable loss our son, who's starting on this similar road, had benefited," he added. "I just thought this was an awfully unique set of circumstances."

It was this exceptional set of circumstances that prompted him to contact Gail again this spring to invite her to Max’s graduation on May 21. She recalls Mike’s phone call: “It was heartwarming because his son really appreciated (the scholarship), and that made me feel wonderful because Cole’s memory lives on.”

Although Max never met Cole, the two shared a common interest in basketball. A varsity player at Rochester Mayo High School, Max stuck to intramural basketball leagues while at St. Thomas, occasionally playing in a men’s league when he returned home for summers. Before starting his freshman year, he met with Steve Fritz, St. Thomas’ athletic director and men’s basketball head coach, to discuss his misgivings over how he might play for St. Thomas while juggling a demanding work-study schedule – throughout his university tenure, Max has returned home to Rochester every weekend, plugging in 20 hours waiting tables and bartending at Söntés restaurant.

His father remembers the meeting as being “pretty impactful. … He told Max that basketball is down on the list, that you have your schooling and your faith (to put first). And that’s when I realized what a good and sincere place St. Thomas was.”

Max, a leadership and management major, will attend the St. Thomas School of Law this fall and plans to apply for the joint School of Law/MBA program next year.

Cole, who was Gail’s only child, played 101 games on St. Thomas’ varsity basketball team from 1998 to 2002. He started at center all four years and was co-captain his senior year, 2001-2002, when the Tommies won both the MIAC regular-season and playoff titles.

Fritz remembers Cole as “a very good player for the St. Thomas basketball team, but he was even a better young man,” adding that he “is pleased that this scholarship in his name continues to help young people who will represent St. Thomas so well in the future.”

In Max’s mind, the meaning and emotional sentiment of the scholarship carries far more weight than its monetary value. “The connection my family made to the Butler family was the most important thing about it,” he said.

Thinking ahead to spring commencement, he added, “I know Gail has fond memories of St. Thomas, and I think having her come to my graduation … it’s going to be an emotional time for all of us.”

Other than for Cole’s graduation, the last time Gail visited St. Thomas was for Solemn Vespers, the annual memorial service for alumni who have passed away, held the first week in November at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.

“I have mixed emotions. I’m sure there will be a few tears,” she remarked on her return to the university this coming weekend.

The elder Shapiro said he believes his son “will be bringing a little piece of Cole and Gail across the stage with him, and that means a lot,” adding that “everything Max has touched that’s had any relationship with St. Thomas has been phenomenal.”

The seventh annual Cole Butler Classic will take place June 25, at the Oak Summit Golf Course in Rochester, Minn. On the 17th hole a plaque commemorates Cole.