PLANT CITY – Bart Butler, who has been blind since 2005, was desperate for work when he called Hillsborough Community College’s Plant City campus in search of a job.
He dialed campus President Dr. Martyn Clay’s extension and got a surprise.
“I expected to get his secretary, but he (Clay) answered the phone and I explained my situation to him. He said he’d get back to me in a couple of weeks. I think it was two weeks to the day, he called,” Butler said.
The discussion with Clay nearly two years ago led to Butler taking a specialist’s position at the campus’ largest and most popular venue, the more than 20,000 square-foot John R. Trinkle Center.
With the aid of a “talking” computer, smart phone and a guide dog named Teddy, the 57-year-old Butler schedules events from weddings to government meetings. “Bart has amazing organizational skills. He puts events together and manages a huge work load. He is already booking events for 2017,” Clay said.
Clay said Butler came to the college through a work program through the Florida Division of Blind Services. The agency paid his salary for the first few months.
It was an easy decision to add him to the college’s payroll after the trial period, Clay said.
“He worked out so well that we scarfed him right up. He’s an absolute gem,” he said.
Butler was born and raised in Ormond Beach, where he swam for his high school team. He attended the University of Florida on a swimming scholarship and obtained a bachelor’s in business administration.
He worked for a number of years and in a number of roles for Coca-Cola, including working with New York City area bottlers on marketing campaigns. He eventually transferred to Florida where he met his now wife of nearly 30 years, Jana, who was working for St. Joseph’s Hospital. Jana Butler is now the executive director of the South Florida Baptist Hospital Foundation.
The couple moved to Plant City and his working career took a few turns that included ownership of a lawn care business and working as a firefighter. He became totally blind in October 2005 due to diabetes, at the same time he had kidney failure.
A kidney and pancreas transplant restored his health but not his vision and he trained at the Division of Blind Services’ Daytona Beach rehabilitation center. He also got Teddy, a half labrador and half golden retriever.
He said he was unemployed for a long time - no one wanted to hire a blind man - until Clay gave him the opportunity.
“This is my dream job since I lost my sight,” he said. “This is the perfect fit for me. I just love it.”
Managing the Trinkle center, one of Plant City’s largest venues, is no easy task, Clay said. As many as three events will take place a day in the center, which can seat up to 1,500 but with movable walls can be divided into much smaller spaces.
“He makes the place run with the precision of a Swiss watch,” he said.
Clay said Butler’s duties are so demanding that Clay is hiring a new employee, Jillian Nelson, to serve as the Trinkle center’s director to take the supervisory work load.
Butler, with his 6 1/2-year-old dog at his side, sits at a desk in the lobby of the center. Most of the inquiries for use of the building come in by phone, but he also has walk-ins – along with the occasional new student needing directions to class.
He learns how large of a space each prospective customer needs, and any special requirements, such as decorations. He draws up contracts with the help of a computer that can convert voice to text and vice versa.
Clay said Butler has “an ability to relate to the clients,” and always follows up with a telephone call to make sure each event was to the customer’s satisfaction.
Butler said he reaches out because, “I want to know what we did right and if anything went wrong.
“I try to make each event a learning experience and I want to know how we can make things better next time.”
He said he keeps in mind that many events, such as weddings, make once-in-a-lifetime memories.
“I love it when people have a good time,” Butler said. “I love it when they call me to tell me how everything was great before I have a chance to call them. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.”