Middlebury

Community member Butch Varno inspires unusual Middlebury College fundraiser

October 22, 2007

NEW! Click here to watch the Nov. 2 CBS Evening News feature on Butch.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - A decades-old tradition is at the heart of a new community-focused fundraising effort at Middlebury College. For years, Middlebury football and basketball athletes have been taking time before college games to drive into town and pick up longtime fan Butch Varno. Varno, a Middlebury native with cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, but nothing dampens his enthusiasm for Middlebury sports.

The tradition began back in 1960, when Roger Ralph, a 1963 Middlebury College graduate, saw Varno's grandmother struggling to push his wheelchair through snow and mud on the way home from a football game and offered to pick them up. Little did he know that "picking up Butch" would become a college ritual that continues in force today.

Varno's story has drawn national attention, inspiring a Rick Reilly column in Sports Illustrated and a feature on ESPN (view in Windows Media Player or QuickTime). The ESPN story won an Emmy Award in 2003.

Moving the Varnos to their new home

On March 16 of this year, the apartment that Varno shared with his mother flooded. Friends at Middlebury College immediately stepped up to find transitional housing for the Varnos and establish a fundraising effort to renovate a permanent residence that includes a handicapped accessible apartment. Varnos' Middlebury friends volunteered to raise $400,000 -$200,000 to finance apartment renovations and $200,000 to endow a Community Response Fund to meet the Varnos' current and future needs, and continue as a lasting source for the community.

"The timing and success of the campaign are critical," said Middlebury College Director Emeritus of Athletics and former Men's Basketball Coach Russ Reilly, who has played an integral role in establishing the fundraiser. "These life-changing disruptions have occurred as Butch and Helen are aging and their adaptive abilities are more at risk. Butch turned 60 last November and his mother is 77."

On Oct. 8, friends of the Varnos from Middlebury College helped move them into their new home. "Actually being there and helping Butch move his belongings into his new home and seeing how genuinely grateful he was just really put things into perspective," said Middlebury College junior and football player Brian Barron. "I'd had a tough week with papers and midterms, but seeing how cheerful and thankful Butch can be despite what he has to deal with physically every day of his life just really helps you to realize how small your own problems are and how lucky you are to be able to do the things we all take for granted."

A job well done!

The core of the Middlebury tradition surrounding Varno began with sports, but has grown beyond that over the years. In the fall, players from the men's basketball team bring Varno to football games. In the winter, football players pick him up and bring him to home basketball games. Other teams also get involved, and Varno has become a familiar cheering figure to many on campus by now.  In addition to picking him up for athletic events, students volunteer to help Varno with his physical therapy, take him for walks around town or rides on the local bus, read with him and help him practice basic living skills. In 2004, Varno completed his General Education Development diploma with the help of his Middlebury tutors.
 
"Butch has inspired this college community in so many ways," said Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz. "Nothing expresses the values of Middlebury and how learning takes place outside our classrooms better than the enduring relationship we've shared over the years, and I'm pleased to support this effort in every way possible."

According to Middlebury College Major Gifts Officer Patrick Berry, more than $60,000 has been raised so far - and more than 67 percent of those donations are from people with no affiliation to the college.

"The friendships that have developed over the years between Butch and countless Middlebury volunteers, student-athletes and local community members are truly remarkable," said Director of the Alliance for Civic Engagement at Middlebury Tiffany Nourse Sargent. "As a fan, a friend, and an inspiration, Butch has picked us up in ways we never imagined. This campaign is an opportunity for us to return the favor."

  • Make an online gift to the Butch Varno initiative! Using the online form, enter the dollar amount of your gift under "Other" and put "Butch" in the "Please Specify" box.