David Butler removes his mask for a moment as he watches a rehearsal of his play, “Dying to Know,” at Mad Horse Theatre Company in November. The production was fast-tracked because of Butler’s cancer diagnosis. He died Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sally Wood was going through a difficult time in her life when she sat down at Maureen Butler’s kitchen table years ago. Her friend suggested she talk to her husband. Wood said no – she didn’t really want to talk to a minister – and then David Butler walked in the door.

“David is this huge mountain of a man,” Wood said. “It’s kind of like the Ghost of Christmas Present walked into the room. He comes and sits down, and the next thing I know, three hours have gone by.”

Butler died Wednesday, less than a year after he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. He was 70. His loss is deeply felt among the Maine theater community, his congregation at Day’s Ferry Congregational Church in Woolwich, his large social circle and his family.

Butler’s friends called to mind a half dozen different characters when they described him: the jolly spirit from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but also Falstaff of Shakespeare, Gandalf of “Lord of the Rings,” Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, Zorba the Greek, even Santa Claus. But he was a singular man, unconfined by any one role in his life and as memorable as the most charismatic characters he played on stage. He was an actor and a playwright, a pastor and a chef, a storyteller and a listener, the guy who gave the toast at the party and the sermon on Sunday.

“He was larger than life,” said Molly Butler Bailey, his daughter.

Butler never shied away from conversations about death, faith and what comes next. He described himself as a Christian agnostic, and in December, Mad Horse Theatre Company put on a play he wrote based on his work as a minister and his approach to the unanswerable questions about the afterlife. Called “Dying to Know,” the 90-minute one-act play focuses on two primary characters: a young woman in hospice dying of cancer and a hospice volunteer. Butler wrote the play years ago and revisited it after his cancer diagnosis.


“This last week, he remembered as a young man being so curious about the next step and being always excited about whatever that was, because he didn’t know,” Wood said. “And that curiosity came back. It became, ‘I’m going to go figure it out.’ ”

His daughter said Butler is originally from New Jersey, and he attended Colgate University, then Union Theological Seminary in New York. In his church bio, he wrote that his faith journey began with atheism, and he explored Buddhism and other world faith traditions before he became a Christian. He worked as a hospital chaplain and a prison chaplain, then a minister in church congregations in Massachusetts and later Maine.


Butler Bailey described her dad as “an old hippie at heart,” passionate about politics and peace. She said he loved to play games and read “The Lord of the Rings” when she was a child. Later in life, father and daughter would plan an annual marathon of the movies, a ritual that her two sons later joined.

David Butler with his grandsons Seamus and Finnegan. Photo courtesy of Molly Butler Bailey

“Seeing him hold my kids was really cool for me,” she said. “What I remember from childhood is how safe I always felt whenever he would hug me. He was this big burly guy. I always felt so small and protected.”

He spent many years ministering at the Congregational Church of Gorham until he retired a few years ago.


“We spent a year in Ireland and fully expected a relaxing retirement,” Butler wrote on the website of Day’s Ferry Congregational Church. “But the need to share my faith and to preach and teach about our quest for the meaning of life, would not let me go.”

So he applied for a job at the small Woolwich church and started there in February 2020. Annie Miller, a deacon at Day’s Ferry, served on the search committee for the new pastor and said Butler was their immediate choice. He had only been preaching there for a few weeks and had yet to learn everyone’s names when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shut down in-person services. Miller said he transitioned seamlessly to virtual services that kept their congregation of 75 connected.

“He developed a tremendously strong connection with our congregation, and many members have had their spirituality revitalized by his two-plus years with us,” Miller said.

“God was not some remote, extraneous presence somewhere out there,” she added. “He really felt that when each of us reaches out and tries to help somebody else, shows love or caring or concern for somebody else, that is what God or religion or spirituality is about.”


Butler was an eloquent speaker, always delivering his sermons without notes. His daughter said he really got involved in theater when he started dating Maureen, who is an actor and poet. He became an author, playwright and actor himself.


“It didn’t take much for David to just steep himself (in theater),” said Wood, who is an actor and director. “He’s such a great big robust energy that theater companies fell in love with him. He was always so fun to watch.”

Peter Brown, the artistic director of Fenix Theatre Company, recalled Butler’s warm presence on stage and his booming voice during productions of Shakespeare in Deering Oaks. They planned to work together in 2020 on a production there of “Henry IV, Part 1,” in which Butler would play Falstaff. The show never happened, pushed off because of the pandemic.

“He exuded a curiosity about life, and that is really what theater is,” Brown said. “I think he loved exploring what it meant to be alive.”

Playwright David Butler, second from right, his wife Maureen Butler, and director Nick Schroeder, second from left, talk with actors Janice Gardner, far left, Paul Haley, far right, and Hannah Daly during a rehearsal of Butler’s play, “Dying to Know,” at Mad Horse Theatre Company. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nick Schroeder also met the Butlers in the theater community and directed “Dying to Know” last year. Working on that play was “the best case scenario for what a theater experience might feel like,” he said. Butler was not afraid to explore the thornier aspects of the human experience through theater, Shroeder said, but he was also full of comedy and conviviality. Schroeder said he is not a religious person but still loved to listen to Butler talk about his faith.

“I think we all felt very alive and were able to hold a piece of him with us as we were working on it,” he said.

Friends from all circles were always welcome at the Butler home in Bath, where they said a massive kitchen table fits 12 or 25, depending on how you squeezed in. Their door was always open for dinner parties or fireside chats; Wood lived with them for two years after that day at their kitchen table.



In particular, their annual Christmas party is the stuff of legend. Butler, who had also worked as a chef, would set the table with rich dishes like beef bourguignon and cheese fondue and lamb (“It wasn’t like chips and dip,” Wood said). When the revelry approached midnight, he would bring out the “smoking bishop,” a cocktail referenced in “A Christmas Carol,” served on fire in an enormous pot. The whole crowd would sing carols as he poured the flaming drink into glasses and passed them out through the crowd. Wood joked that she called the couple “Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig,” another reference to jovial characters from the Dickens novel.

“He and Maureen had a way of making you feel comfortable and at home always,” Butler Bailey said. “No matter where they were, no matter where they lived, you could walk into their house.”

Butler made the decision last month to transition to hospice care, and his loved ones set up a website where they posted updates and friends posted memories. His daughter, his wife and Maureen Butler’s son John kept a vigil in his final days by reading to him and playing songs he loved by The Grateful Dead.

Butler Bailey posted on the website Wednesday after his death and shared a quote from “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien that she had read to her father the day before: “Not until then did they notice that Gandalf was missing. So far he had come all the way with them, never saying if he was in the adventure or merely keeping them company for a while. He had eaten most, talked most, and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”

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