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Street icon 'Mr. Butch' dies at 56

Scooter crash claims popular homeless man

Mr. Butch, shown above on Harvard Avenue in November, had lived on the streets in Boston for about 30 years.
Mr. Butch, shown above on Harvard Avenue in November, had lived on the streets in Boston for about 30 years. (Globe File Photo / Mark Wilson)

Dreadlocked, homeless, and usually cheerful, Mr. Butch was an iconic presence in Kenmore Square for years before moving his base of operations to Harvard Avenue in Allston a decade ago. Ranting in rhyme with a beer in hand -- a tall boy, preferably -- he would panhandle one minute and offer to share his take with a friend the next.

"Mr. Butch," whose name was Harold Madison Jr., died yesterday of injuries from an early morning crash when the motor scooter he was driving hit a pole, friends and family said.

The subject of YouTube videos, a MySpace tribute page, and a Wikipedia entry, Mr. Butch may have been the most famous street person in Boston. He was so popular that The Boston Phoenix wrote in April that it was considering changing the criteria of the "Readers' Pick: Neighborhood Character" category because Mr. Butch won so regularly.

At 56, he had lived on Boston's streets for about 30 years. In Kenmore Square and his Allston neighborhood -- areas rife with college students and people who prefer less traditional approaches to life -- some saw in Mr. Butch a latter-day Thoreau, a man who chose a path that didn't involve taxes, rent, or office cubicles. Instead, he helped the elderly cross streets, joyously played air guitar, philosophized, and sang.

"He's been in so many local movies, videos, in the Phoenix -- he's like an icon of the neighborhood," said Erin Scott, manager of New England Comics on Harvard Avenue in Allston.

"He was just the sweetest, nicest homeless person -- he looked out for people," said Toni Fanning, who owns the Ritual Arts store nearby . "I'll tell you, this whole street is just miserable right now. Everybody just doesn't want to believe it. It's so hard to talk about Butch in any kind of past tense."

In a YouTube video posted on Mr. Butch's MySpace page, he offered a buoyant view on how to live: "You got to be articulate every day and keep going on strong and straight and use your heart and all your might and all your weight and all your power. Do what you can, make it last for many hour, 'cause once you're dead, you're done, you don't come back," he rapped, pausing before adding, "Yeah."

Fanning's favorite encounter with Mr. Butch was on Easter a few years ago. When she left home to visit a friend who was in bad straits, she was depressed about her friend, the day -- just everything.

"And I walked outside and there was Butch standing on the corner of Harvard and Comm. Ave. with a big sandwich board that said, 'I need weed,' " Fanning said. "I started laughing so hard that it got me through that entire day."

Mr. Butch was not timid about his pastimes: drinking beer and smoking marijuana. And he could be irascible. He was a tall and slender man, and the stoop of his shoulders signaled his level of intoxication. Unwelcome as Kenmore Square began tidying up its act, Mr. Butch left, telling friends that encounters with police officers had become too frequent.

Allston proved more tolerant.

"I'm just devastated," said Jerry Katz, a lawyer whose offices are along Harvard Avenue. "Everyone loved Mr. Butch. I loved Mr. Butch."

Though thousands of passersby made his acquaintance through the years, few knew much about Mr. Butch's background. Born in Worcester, he grew up in a large family. His father, Harold Sr., dubbed him Butch.

A talented drummer, he sat in with bands and played with a mentor in the local music scene, picking up the guitar in his midteens and filling a closet with percussion instruments he made from items he found. He did not finish high school and moved to Kenmore Square in the 1970s when Worcester became inhospitable to his frequent drinking.

"I think he was just looking for someplace to be accepted," said his sister Jeannette Madison of Worcester. "He told us that this was the life that he chose -- a street person, happy-go-lucky, panhandler. I guess for him that was easier, and it didn't take very long for people to understand what he was doing and just take it with a grain of salt.

"People are who they choose to be."

In addition to Jeannette, he has four siblings in Worcester -- Russell, Phillip, Jeffrey, and Sheila -- and a brother, Alphonso Moore, of Henderson, Nev. His mother, Virginia, died in December; his father died in 1974.

Mr. Butch played on the fringe of Boston's music scene for years. Friends tried to get him into subsidized housing, but he refused to go through the required detoxification treatments. Recently, he lived in a van friends helped him acquire.

Trusted friends became his "banks," holding onto his money and storing his belongings. Mr. Butch's thee-quarter-length leather coat, with his name in white and red letters on the back, was displayed last night in the window of Regeneration tattoo on Harvard Avenue as a tribute.

"It kind of blows my mind that he isn't here," Scott said. "I have his guitar in my back room. I have a buck in his bank."

Friends plan to meet Monday at 8 p.m. at Regeneration tattoo and Ritual Arts for a memorial , said Sue Jeiven, owner of Regeneration tattoo .

"He always wanted a big blowout for his funeral. He said: 'Blow a lot of money. I want a big party,' " she said.

A favorite among many students and professors, Mr. Butch was once asked to speak at Boston College. Proud of the moment, he sent his siblings a photo of himself lecturing in front of the classroom.

"I feel like he had a lot to say and there were a lot of people who actually wanted to listen," his sister said. "And I thank the Lord for that. And I thank the Lord that Butch is in his hands now."

 Service, parade set for Mr. Butch ()
Archives GLOBE ARCHIVE: Caring for Mr. Butch (4/23/06)