Butt, Howard Edward (1895–1991)

By: Kristy Ozmun

Type: Biography

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: July 14, 2017

Howard Edward Butt, businessman, was born April 9, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Charles Clarence and Florence (Thornton) Butt. His father, a pharmacist, suffered from tuberculosis, so the family moved to Kerrville in the Hill Country of Texas, where the drier climate was believed therapeutic. To support the family, Florence Butt purchased wholesale groceries in 1905 with which she opened a small store in Kerrville later that year. Her cash resources at the time the store opened were sixty dollars. The family of five lived in rented rooms over the store. Howard, the youngest of three boys, helped his mother with the business, delivering groceries first in a child's wagon and later on horseback. He began to manage the store at age sixteen. He graduated as the valedictorian of Tivy High School in 1914. After hitchhiking to California for the summer, he harvested grapes to earn his return train fare and visited the home of his favorite author, Jack London, to whom he introduced himself. Before enlisting in the United States Navy for service in World War I, Butt chose for himself the middle name Edward. He served from 1917 to 1919, part of that time as aide to the commandant at the Great Lakes Naval Station. In 1919 he returned to Kerrville and joined his mother in managing the small family store. In 1921 he converted the store to cash-and-carry instead of charge and deliver, a move that was considered quite a gamble at the time. He attempted four expansions of the business–a feed store in Kerrville and grocery stores in Center Point, Junction, and Brownwood–all of which failed. Other attempts in such towns as Eagle Pass, Uvalde, and Crystal City also failed.

On December 5, 1924, Butt married Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth of Kerrville (see BUTT, MARY E. H.). In 1926 he opened a store in Del Rio that proved successful. In 1928 he borrowed $38,000, moved to the Rio Grande valley, and purchased three small stores. He began calling his stores H. E. Butt Grocery Company in 1935 and changed the name to H-E-B in 1946. Butt expanded the grocery business in the Rio Grande valley and South and Central Texas, entering Corpus Christi in 1931, Austin in 1938, and San Antonio in 1942. Company headquarters moved to Corpus Christi in 1940. As one of the first to begin developing "one-stop shopping," he added a meat market, delicatessen, and bakery to his stores. By the 1950s H-E-B was the leading food retailer in South and Central Texas. By 1960 the company operated over eighty stores and its own food processing and distribution facilities. Butt's son, Charles C. Butt, succeeded him as president in 1971 and as chairman in 1984.

Butt was a thirty-third-degree Mason and a Baptist deacon. He established the H. E. Butt Family Foundation in 1933, one of the earliest philanthropic foundations in Texas. He and his wife pioneered programs instrumental in eliminating tuberculosis in South Texas. They provided libraries and recreational facilities–swimming pools and tennis courts–to many South Texas communities, making seed-money gifts and urging municipal governments to implement these projects, particularly in low-income areas. He also began developing the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp in 1954. Under Butt's leadership, H-E-B regularly gave the maximum philanthropic contributions allowable under federal law. He maintained a strong sense of involvement in the communities that his businesses served. He was a member of the board of directors of Texas A&I college and the University of Corpus Christi. On March 30, 1972, the Texas Senate gave Butt a special commendation for his contributions to the state. He died at age ninety-five on March 12, 1991, in Corpus Christi. At the time of his death there were more than 170 H-E-B supermarkets.

Howard E. Butt, Sr., April 9, 1895-March 12, 1991: Special Edition, Fall 1991 (Kerrville, Texas: Laity Lodge, 1991). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kristy Ozmun, “Butt, Howard Edward,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/butt-howard-edward.

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June 1, 1995
July 14, 2017