The History Of Precious Moments, Part 1: Sam Butcher's Faithful Path To A Dream
Do you remember how you felt as a kid when you first thought of something you wanted to be when you grew up? How determined you were to be that movie star or astronaut, even when your aunt would challenge you with questions about how you would make a living or dash your dreams with facts about how only 1 in 1,000 actors make it to the big time? Sam Butcher, the Precious Moments founder, was led to his artistic dreams by a faith so strong that no obstacle could deter him.
When we’re young we imagine being all sorts of things. For many, we change our minds throughout childhood—and even well into adulthood! But for others, that seed of passion embeds itself into the soul and, while life may bury it under obligation or neglect at different times, it continues to grow.
So it was with Sam Butcher. It’s tempting to say that his calling to be an artist and share God’s love with the world is something we only see now that he is recognized the world over as the creator of the beloved Precious Moments characters, but one simply needs to hear his story to see just how strong his calling was. Through every hand life dealt him, Sam kept coming back to, finding solace in and pursuing his art.
To this day, Sam claims he never dreamt his artistic gift and love of the Lord would lead him to where he is at this point in his life, or that the characters he created would touch hundreds of millions of lives. While it might have been difficult for him to foresee this while cleaning toilets at a hospital, Sam admits that upon later reflection he knows all he’s accomplished is God’s will; he was destined to a ministry of reaching out and touching hearts through Precious Moments.
Sam Butcher, the Early Years
Samuel John Butcher was eager to enter the world to get the most out of his first year on this Earth; he was a New Year’s baby, born January 1, 1939 in Jackson, Michigan, the first recorded birth of the year in Jackson County. His parents, Evelyn and Leon, were out celebrating the new year when their revelry was cut short by this unexpected early birth of their third son. It seemed a fortunate and celebratory start—a harbinger of a joyful life.
Sam’s dad, Leon, was a poor mechanic with an interest in hot rods and motorcycles, which his sons took to as well, all except Sam. He felt he couldn’t relate to those types of things and in part it made him feel alone and isolated from his family, including his four siblings. More so, Sam felt excluded most of his formative years. But despite this isolation, Sam was able to nurture his own interests that brought him happiness. Sam would spend hours at a time under the dining room table, in his own little world, writing and illustrating stories using rolls of paper he’d found at a factory dump and using automotive paint – his only source for color early on. A sensitive soul who felt the pain and stress of others, Sam retreated into his creative talents to help navigate difficult times—from parental arguments to bullying to the loss of a pet.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems this feeling of isolation and of being different than everyone else in his family would surely have squelched Sam’s creativity and left him feeling bitter about his childhood. But not through Sam’s recollection. He believes he had a happy childhood—and attests that much of that good feeling stems from his ability to fantasize and live in a world of make-believe where he was able to draw all of the friends and heroes he wanted in his life.
Sam Butcher Hears His Calling As An Artist
Sam Butcher knew by the time he was in Kindergarten that he was going to be an artist. Though this occupation was not supported by his family, especially his father who felt it would lead to poverty, Sam found early encouragement in his talent from his teachers.
By age 10, Sam and his family moved to California where Sam’s dad found a better job. They lived in a remote mountainous community where Sam spent many glorious hours in the mountains drawing and painting. To him, this was Heaven on Earth, made only more miraculous by the fact that in his new home his teachers saw his abilities and encouraged him, playing an important role in his early development.
Sam believed in education and was determined to finish high school, even when his brothers left school and no longer made the 124-mile round-trip bus ride to the high school. No longer students, his brothers worked full-time at their father’s gas station as paid employees while Sam continued his education and worked in the family business part-time after school and on weekends for no pay.
It’s no wonder he felt he was being punished by his parents for going to school, though in later years Sam remembers his mother as a peacemaker in the family. Fortunately for Sam, during those high school years he did have someone who stood by him – his sister, Dawn. They often shared chores together, singing while they worked. Sam loves music and these memories are some of Dawn’s fondest of Sam when he was young.
Back at school, Sam found he was a popular figure, having learned he could make people happy by drawing pictures for them. Later, his wife, Katie – whom he met in his senior year, - would say Sam had a great personality and “kind of conned” his way through school by doing artwork for teachers so they’d give him good grades. Putting his creative thinking to good use, indeed! But Sam wasn’t really manipulative—he simply and enthusiastically gave of his talent to those who appreciated it. Good things did come to him, but not by design.
The best things to come to Sam in those formative years was in the form of his high school art teacher, Rex Moravec. Encouraging Sam to pursue an art career, Mr. Moravec supported Sam and inspired the future Precious Moments artist to create the “I Can’t Spell Success Without You” figurine; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Sam said of Mr. Moravec, “He taught me the skill of putting life into my painting. He had the unique ability to bring out the best in his students; he could relate to anyone.” So by the time Sam graduated in 1958 from Enterprise High School in Redding, California, he was full of hopes and dreams.
On the back of his graduation photo Sam wrote a note to his mother saying he hoped she would be proud of him someday. Though she did not live long enough to see his Precious Moments drawings and the success that came from them, Sam said his mother always thought he would do something wonderful. It was Sam’s mother, after all, who was most like Sam. Though he always felt different from his family, Sam actually shares creative ability with his mother. Mrs. Butcher took what little she had to fashion items into other uses, making little bib overalls from flour sacks for Sam and his brothers or painting clothespins to look like little people, which the children played with as tiny dolls. These are on display in the Samuel J. Butcher Museum located at the Precious Moments Chapel and Grounds in Carthage, Missouri. Her artistry as well as her love for her children is quite evident in them today, years after her passing.
The Family Life Of The Founder Of Precious Moments
Sam’s calling to be an artist only grew as he did, and by the time high school graduation rolled around, he was given a scholarship to the College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley, California. While there, Sam continued a friendship begun his senior year in high school when Katie Cushman moved to the area and began school there. Though they never dated before he left for college, the friendship blossomed into romance when Sam wrote and asked her to go steady with him. Katie said yes. A class ring was sent in the mail, and by that winter of his first college year, the two were engaged…on New Year’s Eve. Bringing that joy and celebration of Sam’s entry into this world full circle as the couple embarked on their new life together.
The pair married nearly a year later in 1959, Katie’s father having sold a cow to pay for the wedding. They lived in a small apartment near the college, which was also within walking distance to the hospital where Sam worked in the kitchen. With money going mostly towards rent and school expenses, they lived frugally, perhaps splurging on a rare occasion for a small package of Oreo cookies if company was coming.
After working at the hospital, Sam moved on to work at a wallpaper store. Though sales were not his strength, he loved working on window displays, an activity Sam and Katie shared. Bringing home wallpaper samples, Sam would place them all over the floor and draw designs on them, which Katie would cut out, put together and shade with paint. It seems no matter what, art would always fill Sam’s life in every way.
In March of 1962, their first son, Jon, was born. Earlier Katie had moved home to live with her parents because they couldn’t afford a doctor while she was pregnant, and when Sam came to be with her for the birth, he stayed, never going back to school. Though he longed to continue his education and realize his dream of becoming a professor of fine arts teaching art education, he began work at a hospital. He and his family moved into a cottage within walking distance to it. After the hospital, Sam took a job at a restaurant, working hard and trying to incorporate his creativity into all he did. On the pancakes he cooked he would make eyes, a nose and curly hair, which customers loved but his boss did not. Over time Sam began to realize God had other plans for him. It’s then things began to change.
Sam Butcher Dedicates His Life To The Lord
From Sam’s childhood, one of his fondest memories was of his grandmother telling him Bible stories. Though his sister Dawn took him to church and Sunday school, he had been spiritual but not necessarily religious. When Sam’s wife, Katie, suggested they go to a Baptist church near their home, Sam came along accompanied by their two sons, Jon and Phillip, who joined the family in 1963. Being a shy man and with everything about the experience so new to him, Sam accidentally walked off with a hymnal. Embarrassed by this, he fretted until the next Sunday when he could return it. It was at that time Sam gave his life to the Lord.
Early in his new Christian life, Sam felt the Lord Jesus leading him onto the path of fruitfulness and blessing. Before, Sam had difficulty with pronouncing certain words or understanding their meaning, after his transformation into a Christian, he had the capacity to memorize and study. With the Word alive in him, Sam read the Gospel, memorizing verses then chapters. It wasn’t long before his days consisted of working followed by studying the Bible.
Seeing such devotion to serving God in the young Butcher couple, their pastor offered Sam a job in the shipping department at the international office of Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sam accepted and moved his family back to his home state. His talents were quickly recognized at CEF and soon he was promoted to the art department, an area much more suited to his passion and skills.
While Sam grew as an artist for CEF, the Butcher family expanded as well, with the additions of Tammy, born in 1964, Debbie, born 1966, Timmy in 1967, and Don in 1969, as well as an adopted daughter, Heather. Now a family of seven, Sam needed to supplement his income cleaning office buildings. This was on top of the growing pressure of what was required of him at CEF, which kept him busy all day and most nights. The needs and demands were too great for one artist.
“I tried to endure the pressure but it soon became impossible,” Sam explains. “I asked my boss if he would consider hiring help for me but instead I was told they were already considering a replacement artist who could carry the workload without problem.”
God Works In Mysterious Ways
Shocked, crushed and even bitter about this turn of events, Sam asked the Lord to give him the grace to be kind to whomever replaced him. On his final day at CEF, when his replacement was introduced to him, Sam found the kindest eyes he’d ever seen. Sam said God brought them together and from that end they started a new beginning as friends.
Sam moved on to a job with a lithographer while Bill Biel, his friend and the artist who replaced him at CEF, did his best to adjust to the workload Sam had carried. Bill, too, found it to be impossible and he went to his employer asking for help. It was then CEF realized Sam’s value and they contacted him asking for his return. Ironically, Sam became the helper he’d asked for originally.
God works in mysterious ways.
Of course the heartfelt story of Sam Butcher doesn’t end here. His return to CEF led him on a path that brought Precious Moments and so much more to the world.
Learn More About The History Of Precious Moments
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