Barry Saunders

Saunders: Farewell to a force for good – and a big Tar Heels fan

Tamela Hultman knew the Africa News Service in Durham had found a gem when Cassandra Butts came to work there as a researcher soon after graduating from UNC.

“She was a wonderful, talented, caring and eloquent person,” Hultman said. “Sandy could do anything.”

There was one problem, though. The Africa News Service, which reported on Africa-related issues and helped inform U.S. opinion and foreign policy toward the continent, was founded by Hultman, a Duke University grad, and two other Duke alumni. Butts, however, was a Tar Heel to the bone.

“Bertie Howard, one of the founders (and one of the first black Duke graduates), liked giving the interns from UNC a tough time,” Hultman said when I spoke with her Saturday. “My older son used to hang around the office when he was younger, and his early rebellion against his parents was to become a Tar Heels fan. He always enjoyed when we had a Tar Heels fan working with us.”

Hultman and Reed Kramer, another co-founder, later started AllAfrica Global Media in Washington, but stayed in touch with Butts. “She was on our boat last July 4, and we were just trying to figure out if we were going to see her this July 4,” she said.

Butts, who grew up in Durham, died May 25 at her Washington home after a short illness. She was 50. A memorial service will be Tuesday at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington.

She was a former deputy White House counsel, and since 2009 had served as a senior adviser at the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent government agency that develops recommendations on U.S. foreign aid to developing countries.

President Barack Obama had nominated her as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, but the U.S. Senate failed to act on the nomination – most likely because it was Obama who had nominated her.

Robyn Hadley, Butts’ former college suite mate at UNC-Chapel Hill, remembered her as “very, very smart, very soft-spoken, a very focused young lady.”

Hadley, a native of Graham, is now associate vice chancellor and dean at Washington University in St. Louis. She mourned Butts’ death as “a great loss in terms of intellectual capital and compassion. ... She was an extraordinary, humble person who liked working behind the scenes and didn’t seek the spotlight.”

It is, of course, hard to remain hidden from the spotlight when you’re best buds with the president of the United States, a member of his “sisterhood” of close female advisers and one of the Harvard Law classmates who convinced him to run for president of the Harvard Law Review.

Butts and Obama met in 1988 while filling out financial aid forms to the law school and bonded over jazz and a shared desire to do good. In a statement on the White House website, President and Mrs. Obama remembered Butts as “someone who put her hands squarely on that arc of the moral universe, and never stopped doing whatever she could to bend it towards justice. ... We admired her so much. And we will miss her deeply.”

I don’t know ‘Cassandra,’ I know Sandy. We went to Githens Middle School, Jordan High and UNC together, and we were counselors at the YMCA at the same time.

Farad Ali, former Durham city councilman and fried of Cassandra Butts

Hadley said she met Butts when Butts was an 18-year-old college freshman. Farad Ali, president and CEO of the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development and a former Durham city councilman, knew her a decade before that. “I knew her in BK,” he said, using the term Brooklynites use to describe their New York City borough. Both families worked at IBM in Brooklyn, and when IBM opened headquarters here, both families moved.

“I don’t know ‘Cassandra,’” Ali said when asked about Cassandra. “I know Sandy. We went to Githens Middle School, Jordan High and UNC together, and we were counselors at the YMCA at the same time.

“Sandy?” he said. “always very focused. But she was cool.”

Robert L. Wilkins, a federal judge, thought so, too. Wilkins said he met her during her first week at Harvard Law. “I was in my third year. She was a ‘good soul,’ a person who wouldn’t speak ill of others, a great conversationalist,” he said. “She was a lot of fun.”

Wilkins – an Indiana native – said Butts and he bonded while fighting against apartheid in South Africa “and over our mutual hatred of Duke” basketball.

Everyone who knew Butts spoke of her passion for UNC basketball. Faith Abbott, of Kinston, whose brother is married to Butts’ sister, said, “Sandy was probably the world’s biggest Tar Heels fan. She was always calling and texting during games.”

When she wasn’t rooting on her Tar Heels, friends and family agree, she was trying to bend that arc of the moral universe toward justice. Hultman said she last saw Butts at a fundraiser – one Butts had organized – to fight Ebola.

Melody Barnes, Obama’s former domestic policy adviser, met Butts while both were students at UNC, worked with her at the Center for American Progress in Washington and later at the White House. Barnes said Butts at the time of her death was working on a “passion project of hers” – to fund annual scholarships to D.C. Public High School seniors who’ll pursue higher education in the arts.

Melody Barnes, who met Butts while both were students at UNC and who worked with her at the White House, said Butts at the time of her death was working on a project to fund annual scholarships to D.C. Public High School seniors who’ll pursue higher education in the arts.

“Cassandra was an avid lover of the arts and could quote movie reviews and was a voracious reader,” Barnes said, adding that when she underwent surgery, Butts “gave me an armful of books to enjoy while I was recuperating. Over the years, when I’d look at those books on my shelf, I’d often think of her.”

A Washington Post story on Butts’ death reported that after graduating from law school in 1991, she was legislative counsel to Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., then worked on civil rights policy with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She was a top adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who was House minority leader at the time. She helped vet judicial nominees and served as counsel for the House Democratic Policy Committee during the 1998 impeachment hearings on President Bill Clinton.

In 2004, when Obama was elected to the Senate, Butts helped hire his staff and organize his office. During his presidential run four years later, she was among several former classmates who helped with his campaign. After he was elected, she served as general counsel to the Obama transition team.

Her mother, Mae Karim, lives in Durham. Her father, Charles Norman Butts, lives in New York, and her sister, Deidra Abbott, lives in Maryland.

Her friends live everywhere.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, bsaunders@newsobserver.com, @BarrySaunders9

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