Beloved broadcasting teacher calls it a career at Morristown High; pandemic ‘too risky’

Morristown High School freshman Chris Gordon gets a video lesson from broadcasting teacher Mike Butler. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown High School freshman Chris Gordon gets a video lesson from broadcasting teacher Mike Butler. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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That’s a wrap.

Mike Butler, a TV pro who came to Morristown High School a decade ago and turned the school’s broadcasting program into an award-winning powerhouse, is retiring.

“I enjoyed it immensely…it was very worthwhile, and very fulfilling,” said Butler, expressing pride in former students who are starting media careers after getting into top programs at the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, New York University, Syracuse University and Ithaca College, among other places.

Teacher Mike Butler with winning students Grace-Keane, Grace Prachthauser, Nya Federoff and Jess Vogel. Photo courtesy of Grace Prachthauser.
Teacher Mike Butler with Film Festival -winning students Grace Keane, Grace Prachthauser, Nya Federoff and Jess Vogel. Photo courtesy of Grace Prachthauser.

“I guarantee every student that had Mr. Butler can tell you a time that he went out of his way to help them,” said Jake Goldberg (MHS ’14), now a production assistant at NFL Films.

Butler said the pandemic dissuaded him from continuing. He turns 63 in September and has diabetes.

“If not for the coronavirus, I probably would have stayed another year or two. But I won’t risk it. My health’s too important,” Butler said.

Remote classes would have posed hurdles, too, he said. Broadcasting is a hands-on enterprise involving school cameras, microphones, and lots of collaboration. “I don’t know how well my subject matter translates to virtual learning,” said Butler, who still is pondering his next act.

Morris School District officials said it’s too soon to say whether more teachers will opt for retirement rather than return amidst coronavirus uncertainties. But it’s a concern, as the regional district races to plan for a September reopening with a mix of classroom- and virtual instruction.

Any spike in retirements, teachers unable to return for health reasons, or new students will pose serious challenges, Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast told the school board last week.

Deirdre Falk, president of the TEAM teachers union, did not respond to Morristown Green’s questions about the number of retirements for the upcoming school year. But teachers are anxious about re-entry, Falk acknowledged.

“Of course, the staff are quite concerned about returning to the physical classroom,” Falk, a teacher at Frelinghuysen Middle School, said via email. “The primary issue is the ability of staff to be socially distanced six feet from the students, as stated in the CDC guidelines, especially if the elementary students aren’t wearing masks.”

Morris School District board member Ann Rhines said she was saddened by Butler’s departure.

Mike Butler teaches MHS students to superimpose images using a green screen background, in 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“My heart is just palpitating with the thought that he’s leaving, because he’s done so well,”  Rhines told the board last week, citing a string of statewide film prizes for students, and the teacher’s help with video coverage of Morris Educational Foundation events.

Butler orchestrated live coverage of the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials at Court TV.

At Morristown High, the Chester resident taught broadcasting, oversaw the Colonial Corner sports and news shows and the school radio station, and launched a school film festival that ran for seven years.

His students took top honors in the New Jersey High School Film Challenge in 2017 and 2018, besting dozens of schools. Morristown High also won prizes in the comedy and sound editing categories.

MHS senior Kevin Crawford and Broadcasting teacher Michael Butler, working on 2020 graduation website. Image courtesy of Morris School District.

During this pandemic spring, Butler worked with senior Kevin Crawford to produce Morristown’s High’s virtual commencement.

Butler’s protégés also created documentaries for a tribute to the late philanthropist Stephen B. Wiley, and for the Morristown National Historical Park.

BEYOND F-STOPS

Former students praised Butler for making a difference that extended beyond F-stops and editing tips.

“Mr. Butler was unlike any other teacher I had,” said Rutgers University student Kylee Strasser (MHS ’19), a multiple winner in the MHS film festival and co-producer of a video for the Morristown National Historical Park.

“Every day I looked forward to seeing him and learning not only about film, but hearing valuable life lessons from him. Mr. Butler challenged me to be independent, and take risks, while still helping me along the way if I needed it,” she said.

“He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” echoed Trevor Stephney,  who wrote and directed the winning entry in the New Jersey High School Film Challenge in 2017, his senior year at MHS.

Butler starred as himself in the short comedy, titled One Chance. “I channeled my inner Larry David,” he said at the time.

‘One Chance,’ Morristown High’s winning entry in 2017 NJ High School Film Challenge:

“His charisma, positivity, passion; it’s all naturally in his soul,” said Stephney. “He understands that kids need a safe space to creatively express their feelings, so his class serves as an outlet. I’ll always miss staying after school, eating pizza with friends in the studio, and working on projects.”

Stephney continues to hone his moviemaking skills at Montclair State University, using a pair of cameras he won at Morristown High film festivals. Butler developed ties with a community benefactor who provided cameras, drones and other high-end gear to students.

‘Broken,’ winning entry in the 2018 NJ High School Film Challenge:

Butler worked in television for 30 years, but he also brought a passion for radio to his second career.

He kept alive WSJV-FM, a student radio station with a tradition that spans decades.  Joey Viola (MHS ’11) remembers learning about the Velvet Underground from Butler, who played drums in a teacher band, the Dogs, in a benefit for the station.

Video: Mike Butler drums for The Dogs at MHS in 2020:

They also talked about the late comedian John Belushi; Butler encouraged Viola’s comedy sketches for Colonial Corner. “That meant a lot to me,” Viola said.

“Mr. Butler…treated me and the other seniors involved with WJSV with more respect and caring than possibly any other teacher I’ve ever encountered,” he said, describing the station’s transformation from “an enjoyable club… to a very special place.”

Broadcasting teacher Mike Butler announces winners of first Morristown High School film fest, as assistant producer Allie Lott listens. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Broadcasting teacher Mike Butler announces winners of first Morristown High School film fest, as assistant producer Allie Lott listens, in 2013. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Ithaca College honored Butler in 2015 with its S’Park Media Mentor Award. He was nominated by MHS graduates Allie Lott and Jake Goldberg.

“Not only did he teach about camera angles, methods of recording, the power of sound, and how to navigate Final Cut Pro, he also taught me the importance of finishing on time, being up to date and respecting all crew members on a team,” Lott said at the time.

Jake Goldberg, left, and teacher Mike Butler call a Morristown High basketball game for WJSV-FM in 2014. Photo by Nicki Franco

Goldberg shared the WJSV broadcast booth with Butler for some Morristown High basketball games, experiences he said he always will cherish.

The teacher was generous with his time, and his dime, ordering food for the broadcast crew, Goldberg recounted.

Among many other things, Goldberg said, Butler taught him to embrace constructive criticism, “because it only makes you a better storyteller.”

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