Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Lost and Found

The first and only book I owned as a child was a book of brief sketches of the lives of courageous men and women titled The Book of Courage. It was given to me by my Aunt Eva Butts who taught school in Monroe County for many years. I read and re-read that book many times. Somewhere along the way the book was lost.


While I was pastor in Montgomery, I mentioned in a sermon that I had lost this very important book that had meant so much to me as a child. The next day a thoughtful parishioner brought me a copy of the book from her library. Every time I see that book on my shelf, I think of the thoughtfulness of Eugenia Parramore, who has slipped the ‘surly bonds’ of this world, but whose kindness will always be a part of my memory.

During that same period of time, I came upon a profound little book by Professor Gilbert Highet titled Man’s Unconquerable Mind, published in 1954 by Columbia University Press. I loaned the book to some soul who was a ‘bookkeeper’ and it never came back. I looked in libraries and bookstores for a copy of this book for twenty-five years. In late January 2004, I was at the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, waiting for my wife, Hilda, to get out of an eight-hour surgery. While walking off my anxiety I came upon a book fair in the hospital and found a copy of my much treasured and long lost little book for fifty cents. I would have gladly paid fifty dollars for it. I re-read it the next day. It was even more profound than I remembered.

In the space of 125 pages, Professor Highet explores the wondrous possibilities and the limitations of the human mind. He says that we were born to think, but that so many spend so little time thinking about things that count. He writes about the unpredictable evolution of genius. You cannot predict with any degree of accuracy when or where or in what person genius will appear.  He also affirmed that behind almost every great person there is a good parent or good teacher feeding them challenges and bringing them in contact with other great minds.


Isaac Newton was the son of a Lincolnshire farmer. He was not even bright as a child. He was a mediocre student at Cambridge, and then in a few years the spark of profound genius descended. Albert Einstein did poorly in school as a child. He was slow in learning to talk.  He had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never be able to learn.  Whenever he had something to say he would try it out  on himself by whispering it softly until it sounded good enough to say out loud. His biographers said that he had a mild form of "echolalia" causing him to repeat phrases to himself two or three times, especially if they amused him. He was rebellious toward authority, which caused one schoolmaster to send him packing.  Another teacher told Einstein’s father that Albert would never amount to much. Hmmm.


While the proper atmosphere for genius is difficult to predict, Professor Highet suggests that probably the surest way to grow up ‘stupid’ is to be a part of a large static population doing manual labor, living just on the level of subsistence, and that the next best training ground for stupidity is to be born in a nice family with inherited wealth, brought up in an assured social position and sent to a quiet and correct school. The ploughboy and the playboy are in a mental prison, one following the furrow and the other wallowing in a well-upholstered rut.


Highet quotes John Masefield’s touching and awkward little poem as encouragement:


"I’ve seen flowers come in stony places;

Kindness done by men with ugly faces;

And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races;

So I trust, too."


It is a joy to find a profound and stimulating book, but an even greater joy to find a great book that once was lost.


I will never loan this book again except to those who will sit in my study to read it, or put up a sizeable bond to assure its safe and timely return!!