Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, social reformer, daughter of Thomas and Rosa (Ross) Holdsworth, was born the fourth of seven children on a ranch near Loma Vista, Texas, on February 4, 1903. Thomas Holdsworth immigrated to Texas as a child in 1880 with his stepmother and father, an English schoolmaster, and settled on a homestead in Zavala County. Mary graduated from Tivy High School in Kerrville, attended the University of Texas in Austin, and taught in the Kerrville public schools during the mid-1920s. On December 5, 1924, she married Howard Edward Butt, who operated a small grocery store in Kerrville. In 1929 they moved to Brownsville in the Rio Grande valley and later relocated to Harlingen. During this time Mrs. Butt began a series of projects addressing the health and educational needs of South Texas families. Her dining room became the area office for the State Crippled Children's Program, and she served as chairwoman of the Cameron County Child Welfare Board. She worked to expand inadequate library services. She also began an ambitious program of tuberculosis diagnosis and treatment throughout the valley and later bought the first equipment for testing the hearing and vision of the area's elementary school children. While living in the valley she gave birth to three children.
During these years her husband's business, H-E-B, was expanding. In 1940 the family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. There the YWCA, the Hearth, the Nueces County home for the aged, the Nueces County Tuberculosis Hospital, and the district American Cancer Society were all organized in the Butt home. Troubled by the lack of day care for African-American children, Mary Butt worked to establish the Mary Bethune Day Nursery, an organization still strong in Corpus Christi in the 1990s. She served on the Community Chest Board and was also the prime mover in establishing a Juvenile Center separate from the jails. Mrs. Butt helped to establish Hilltop, a local tuberculosis hospital for the Corpus Christi area, which opened in 1953. She served for five years as chairman of the Hilltop board. She often testified before state legislative committees regarding the budgetary needs of agencies with which she worked, and in 1934 she and her husband established the H. E. Butt Foundation, one of the earliest philanthropic foundations in Texas, to provide libraries and recreational facilities and fund public school programs. The H. E. Butt Foundation Camp, on the Frio River, yearly provides facilities for over 18,000 campers (many from state mental hospitals) free of charge and is the site of Laity Lodge, a Center for Christian Learning.
In 1953 Mary Butt received an honorary doctor of law degree from Baylor University and in 1955 an honorary doctorate from Paul Quinn College, Waco, Texas. Also in 1955 she was appointed by Governor Allan Shivers to the governing board of Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools, which was supplanted in 1965 by the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. For eighteen years she was the only woman member of this board. In 1954 she was selected by citizens of Laredo to receive the annual Mrs. South Texas Award in recognition of her work in the fields of public health, social service, and education and so became the first woman to receive the award. In 1968 Howard and Mary Butt were awarded the Texas Library Association Philanthropic Award of the Year in recognition of their service to the libraries. In 1975 they were presented the Brotherhood Award from the Corpus Christi Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in appreciation of their humanitarian endeavors on a statewide as well as local basis.
In 1981 Mary Holdsworth Butt was chosen to receive the first Yellow Rose Award by the Parent's Association for the Retarded in Texas. In conjunction with the award, the state Senate and House adopted resolutions commending her life work. On May 13, 1981, Governor William P. Clements designated her a member emeritus of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
In September 1986 the Texas Alliance for the Mentally Ill voted to make Mrs. Butt the first recipient of its lifetime award, in honor of her contributions to the field of mental health and her "leadership in improving human services for the people of Texas." On July 12, 1993, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges' Awards Committee selected her to receive the council's highest award for "Meritorious Service to the Children of America." She died in her home in Corpus Christi on October 6, 1993 and was survived by her three children–Howard E. Butt, Jr., president of H. E. Butt Foundation and founder of Laity Lodge; Margaret Eleanor Butt Crook, a director of Bread for the World, Washington, D.C., whose husband, William H. Crook, served as director of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and later as United States Ambassador to Australia; and Charles C. Butt, president and chairman of H. E. Butt Grocery Company.