Butch Varno, a lifelong resident of the town of Middlebury and a dear part of the Middlebury athletics community, passed away on Oct. 14. He was 75.
Varno ingratiated himself in the Middlebury community in 1960 when he was just 13 years old. Varno — who had cerebral palsy — was coming home from a Middlebury football game with his grandmother, who was struggling to push Varno’s wheelchair through the snow. Roger Ralph ’63, a student at the time, saw Varno and his grandmother struggling in the snow, and Ralph offered them a ride home.
Since Ralph first picked up Butch in 1960, Middlebury sports teams have continued the meaningful tradition of “picking up Butch.” Members of Middlebury’s basketball and football teams have driven to Butch’s house and picked him up for more than 60 years, making sure that one of their most loyal and dedicated fans was always in the stands for their games.
Attending almost every Middlebury sports game, Varno developed a passion for Middlebury sports. He would always complain about being inside doing things like playing bingo; being around places like the football team is where he found joy, according to Margaux Eller ’24, an intern on “Butch’s Team,” a community engagement organization that visited him on a weekly basis as well as organizing special events in his honor.
Butch’s fandom for Middlebury sports went beyond traditional boundaries that separate a fan from a team. Not only did he attend nearly every game he could, but he came to know the teams he watched on a personal level, player by player.
“He would always talk as if he was part of the teams, saying that he helped with recruitment for the players,” Eller said. “I think that just showed that he felt like he’s part of the team and, equally, that all the team members felt like he was an important member of their team.”
Butch was beloved by the athletes he supported and the people around him, and he brought enormous joy and positivity to the Middlebury community as a whole.
“[His] smile and his laugh are just so infectious that I just remember how that one to two hours out of my day [spent with Butch] could have that much of an impact on his happiness,” Eller said.
In the past few years, Covid-19 restrictions limited Butch’s ability to go to his beloved Middlebury sports games and reduced his interactions with the rest of the community. However, through his support team, he was still able to connect with other members of the community, and as Covid-19 restrictions loosened, he got back to watching Middlebury sports and being picked up by Middlebury athletes.
Even outside of watching Middlebury athletics, Butch had a deep connection with the school. Through his aforementioned support team, he interacted with a wide range of students by doing things like going on walks, visiting different parts of town and just simply having conversations.
“[Through Butch’s Team], I soon realized that [Butch] kind of became a member of my Middlebury family,” Eller said. “He was just so personable, bringing so much joy and laughter into everyone's life.”