Among the upwardly mobile executive ranks of Bell Atlantic Corp., J. Henry "Hank" Butta remains an anomaly: He has commuted from the same house for 18 years, he vacations in Ocean City, and his idea of fun is to go crabbing in the Wye River using chicken necks for bait.
And when this man of decidedly simple tastes retires Sept. 1 from Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., the local phone company that is owned by Bell Atlantic, he will leave as one of the most influential executives in Maryland and, arguably, one of the most effective managers in Bell Atlantic's stable of talent.
Not bad for a guy who started out at C&P in Baltimore 44 years ago as a mail clerk.
"Fundamentally, he is a guy who is living the great American success story," said Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, who has known Mr. Butta for more than a decade. "Here was a Highlandtown kid who grows up to run the telephone company."
Mr. Butta's arrival at C&P almost didn't take place. After graduating from Loyola High School in 1947, Mr. Butta said, he was forced to turn down a football scholarship to Georgetown University because he had to work to help support his mother. After a 6-month stint working as a road contractor, Mr. Butta decided to see if the local phone company had any job openings.
"I walked into 327 St. Paul [C&P's office], and they said they weren't hiring anybody but World War II vets," Mr. Butta recalled. "But they took my application anyway. Then they called me the next day and said I could be a mail boy."
His job in the mailroom was followed by stints as a manhole worker, splicer, lineman, telephone installer, central office repairman and service representative before he moved into management more than 30 years ago.
He was promoted to vice president of C&P of Maryland in 1979, the same year he struck up a friendship with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Mr. Butta became president of C&P July 1, 1988, and chief executive officer Jan. 1, 1990.
With Mr. Butta at the helm, C&P invested over $400 million a year to modernize its network, increasing its efficiency and allowing it to offer new-age services to customers. Toward that end, C&P has lobbied vigorously for regulatory relaxation, with the CEO taking a prominent role. After Mr. Butta, who normally shuns the limelight, walked the halls of the General Assembly in Annapolis to make C&P's case, the state granted the company freedom to charge free-market prices for services as long as C&P has competition.
Today, Mr. Butta holds court from a penthouse suite atop C&P's headquarters at 1 Pratt St. His expansive office, which has a panoramic view of the Inner Harbor, is filled with reminders of his journey up the executive ranks: There's a coffee cup that bears a picture of a hard-hat worker, a stack of congratulatory letters from linemen, installers and repairmen, and a C&P plaque that reads: "Quality Begins Here."
Mr. Butta's past has left its mark on the departing president, who says it is the constant stream of cards and letters from field employees that he now cherishes the most.
"What I'm going to miss most is not the job, but the people around here," said Mr. Butta. "All over the state I have people I have worked with for a lot of years, and I will really miss them. . . . That's going to be the toughest part."
At 63, Mr. Butta said that he is looking forward to taking a break from corporate life. But it's clear from his busy calendar that he won't be fading into permanent retirement soon. Known as a tireless worker on the volunteer scene, Mr. Butta said that he plans to continue his work with a number of educational and self-help groups in the state.
There are no plans to run for political office, despite occasional scuttlebutt to the contrary.
"Two things are going to happen for sure in the future," mused Mr. Butta. "The sun is going to come up in the east, and I ain't never gonna run for office."
But he is going to take time out for some of the simpler things in life, like crabbing in the Wye with his wife of 42 years, Anne, spending time with his four grandchildren and working on his golf game.