Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor who served for 20 years as president of SUNY College at Old Westbury until he retired in 2020, died Friday, the church said. He was 73.
One of the New York Metro area’s most outspoken leaders and the senior pastor of New York City’s largest black church, Butts had used his position to address important issues in the Black community and advocate for civil rights, social justice and economic development. As the longest-serving president of SUNY Old Westbury, Butts reinvigorated the student body, gaining funding for five new residence halls, a student union and new academic center, as well as technology enhancements for the classrooms and dorms.
“The Butts family and entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers for us in our bereavement,” the church said on its website. No cause of death was given.
Born on July 19, 1949 to a cook and and social service worker in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Butts’ family later moved to New York City, where he graduated from Flushing High School in 1967. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Morehouse College, a Master of Divinity in church history from Union Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry in church and public policy from Drew University.
Butts started as a youth minister in 1972 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he worked his way to the top over three decades. He also delivered a weekly sermon by radio on 98.7 FM.
“Dr. Butts was a force for moral clarity, a voice for his Harlem community, a counselor to so many of us in public service and I was proud to call him a friend,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said. “Bill and I are praying for his wife, Patricia Butts, children, and grandchildren and for all New Yorkers who have felt the impact of Dr. Butts’ visionary leadership. We will miss him greatly.”
He worked with political leaders across the ideological spectrum. In 1995, Republican Gov. George Pataki appointed Butts to two state boards that controlled economic development grants to businesses. That same year, Butts hosted then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro at Abyssinian, where the fatigues-wearing communist received a hero’s welcome.
Tyler Perry and Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the mourners at a memorial service for actor Cicely Tyson that Butts presided over at Abyssinian last year. Butts praised Tyson as an example of “an example of how we all might live.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton called Butts a a major pillar in the Harlem community.
“He was a dominant faith and academic leader for decades,” Sharpton said in a statement. “We knew each other for more than 40 years, and while we did not always agree we always came back together.”
He is survived by his wife Patricia Butts, three children and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately clear.
-With Associated Press