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William Barry Furlong
October 22, 1962
Paul Butler has a $100-million-a-year business, flies jet airplanes, walks out on boring parties, swims outdoor every day of the year and is a MAN WITH 14 POLO FIELDS He rules over a vast and plush domain not as a feudal lord but as patron of the more active arts
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October 22, 1962

Man With 14 Polo Fields

Paul Butler has a $100-million-a-year business, flies jet airplanes, walks out on boring parties, swims outdoor every day of the year and is a MAN WITH 14 POLO FIELDS He rules over a vast and plush domain not as a feudal lord but as patron of the more active arts

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Paul Butler is a shy, rich, abundantly self-contained individual who at the tree-ripened age of 72 flies jet airplanes, backs Broadway musicals and is possessed by the most eclectic compulsion in sports: he collects polo fields. At last count he had 14 of them—each about as large as nine football fields—on his estate in Oak Brook, Ill. Exactly what forces impel a man to this passion is uncertain, but a number of possibilities turn up, the least spectacular—and most accurate—of which is Paul Butler's decision to encourage the sports which could decorate Oak Brook in the traditions of a more gracious and leisurely age, that is, of 19th century England, with its love of land and high sportsmanship.

Among sportsmen of the mid-20th century, whose passions run more towards profits and win-at-any-cost, this is as elegant and fulfilling an ambition as being led slowly to one's own execution. Such sportsmen feel that polo is, like whist and spit-in-the-ocean, largely the custom of the dilettante and the effete rich. That Paul Butler is rich is indisputable; that he is not effete is suggested by the fact that he still likes to hunt elk and mountain lions in the Rocky Mountains, that he shoots golf "a little above par," and that he goes for a swim outdoors at least once a day, no matter how cold the weather. And in his younger days he had a pronounced fondness for timber racing, a calisthenic as dilettantish as running the Kentucky Derby through a dense forest. "The thing about this guy," says one of his friends, "is that he's nuts for anything you can do—not watch." And that was the impulse behind Oak Brook—to make it the "national capital" of the sports you can do, not watch.

The success of this ambition is reflected on Oak Brook's 3,600 manicured acres, where on any given day pockets of people can be seen, scattered like almonds through a chocolate bar, swimming or playing tennis, playing golf (on one of the three courses on or adjacent to Butler's acreage), riding to hounds, hunting partridge, pheasant or duck (in season, of course), or learning to ride, to shoot (guns or bows and arrows), or—in the wintertime—to skate. On a more exalted level, Oak Brook is both an institution and a haven for the ultimate in competition in a good many sports. Last month it was, for the ninth consecutive year, the site of the National Open in polo. Early in August it was the site of the title matches of the National Archery Association. At various times during the summer it was the site of everything from the Oak Brook Hounds Horse Show—long one of our more soign�e exhibitions—to dog-obedience trials.

The fine, juvenescent influence of all this can be seen nowhere better than on Paul Butler. He looks to be in his 40s. His forehead is faintly freckled, but his face is unmarked by the years. His body—160 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame—is still lean and hard. "Father never let his mind or body get soft," says his daughter, Jorie, "and I think that helps keep him young."

Butler's work alone has been enough to test a strong man. He inherited the J. W. Butler Paper Company from his father, and rather than let it drift in a torpor of modest prosperity he built it into a vast domain—now called simply the Butler Company—with 65 divisions, among them ranching, aviation and sports. "I'd say it would rank, if it were a publicly held corporation, around 400th on FORTUNE'S list of the top 500 industrial concerns in the country," says one confidant. "Its sales are about $100 million a year." Today Butler rarely works the 12-to-18-hour days for months at a time that marked his pace the past; instead, he runs the company from Oak Brook where he can also indulge his addiction to land and sports. His habits, however, have not changed much from the time when he went to work every day in Chicago's Loop. He is still a meticulous man—"almost to the point of being fussy," says one friend. He still gets up very early; he takes his first horseback ride around the grounds shortly after dawn, looking for something that mars the perfection of the land. It is a rare thing to see a dead branch lying on the ground or a fence unmended at Oak Brook.

Butler does not project the customary image of the business leader or the gregarious sports host. There is a very perceptible restraint about him. "He'll give you his best camera, but he doesn't want to be responsible for the pictures you take with it," says one acquaintance. He has long been one of those tormented men of great wealth who find it difficult to say "no" to people for fear of hurting their feelings. "That's why he surrounds himself with so many hatchet men," says Jorie. In social matters, he is terribly introverted, to the point of abruptly getting up and leaving parties. In conversation, he tends to parse and diagram a sentence mentally before uttering it. "He hates to commit himself," says Jorie. Nevertheless, in those rare moments when he's at ease, he can talk with vast sophistication over a great range of subjects—all except one. "He simply loathes talking about himself," explains a friend. "He thinks it's vulgar."

Under the circumstances, therefore, it came almost as a trauma when the late Paul M. Butler, a man with practically a glandular desire to discourse on politics, was named chairman of the Democratic National Committee in December 1954. At the time Paul Butler—"I have no middle initial"—was flying to his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., having finished some top-secret government business in Washington. When he landed in Palm Beach and people rushed up to congratulate him, he wondered how his government business had leaked out. It hadn't—but a Palm Beach newspaper, mistaking the dispatches from Washington, had rushed into print with a story about "our own Paul Butler" (who is a Republican) being named chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It seemed quite a feat to the folks in Palm Beach. Though he was embarrassed by the mistake, "our own Paul Butler" and his family found, over the years, that there were occasional advantages to being taken for "the other Paul Butler." One time in Manhattan, a lady who was selling him Christmas cards—"of which I must buy quite a few," he says—gave him an extra discount because she thought he was the Democrats' Paul Butler. Jorie breezed into the 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago simply by announcing—and proving—that she was Paul Butler's daughter.

Aside from politics, Paul Butler is a man of many furious and vagrant cultivations. Their scope is suggested by the books piled under the tables and against the walls of the living room of his home—ranging from Homer's Iliad to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, from We by Charles A. Lindbergh to the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, from Call of the Wild to Pale Fire. Some years ago he decided—in bravura defiance of the trend of his personality—to back Broadway shows, and his choices thus far reflect a conspicuous commercial savvy: Kismet, Peter Pan with Mary Martin, and The Music Man ("I wound up as the largest single investor"). In his late 60s he decided that, having logged almost 4,000 hours at the controls of propeller-driven planes, he should get his jet pilot's papers—and he did. In sports, he plunged into everything from playing hockey with his children on Salt Creek near his house to all forms of hunting.

But his most enduring enthusiasm has been horses and horsemanship. "He never cared much for Thoroughbred racing," says Jorie. "He always liked riding better than watching races." She feels that polo was a natural progression for a man with her father's temperament and enthusiasms. Contrary to its reputation, polo is about as genteel as Tony Galento. It is as exhilarating—at least for two riders on a collision course—as riding over a cliff in a new car. It is a sport in which a few players—and some ponies—get killed. "Polo demands control and teamwork, and it has an element of danger that I think Daddy likes," says Jorie.

As a player, Paul Butler is so controlled, so terribly purposeful that player, pony, and mallet seem virtually welded into one. He became, at his best, a four-goal player. (This is not an indication of how many goals he would score in a game but a rating on an arbitrary scale in which a 10-goal player is considered perfect.) In later years he reverted—to the immense relief of his family—to lower ranking. "There's great danger that a player who's highly rated will take unusual risks to live up to his ranking and his teammates," says Jorie. Butler still plays a "very strong" No. 1 position, which is akin to playing forward in hockey or basketball. That is, he must always be in a position to receive the ball from a teammate behind him and take it on into the goal or set up the other "forward" (the No. 2 player) for a shot. Though he did not play on Oak Brook's entry in this year's National Open, Butler plays at least two games a week and practices daily. He is, according to one advocate of the sport who has studied him closely, "still a very intelligent player, perhaps not as fast as he was in the past, but he's a good thinker and a very, very good horseman."

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