Working for Michael Butler, Oak Brook Polo Club in the 70’s

Who is Michael Butler? Son of Paul Butler of OakBrook, Illinois. To keep it simple, the Butler name carried about the same clout in Illinois as Donald Trump in New York. Everybody knew the name, wealth and fame attached to it.

I was a teenager and horse enthusiast from a middle class suburb of Chicago when I met Michael. Butler’s Polo Club was exactly that, a polo club, with an upscale high society social community all it’s own. One I didn’t belong in, but to me, that didn’t mean much, all I cared about were the stables and the posh ponies inside.

There was a horse stable on the property used for public lessons, adjacent to a restaurant called The Saddle Club. I was already a hunter jumper student for many years at another riding establishment. But I wanted more, and hoped better training would open the doors of opportunity. I signed up for private jumping lessons, thinking I took a giant step in my life’s future direction.

The riding lessons at the Polo Club were expensive, but my father agreed to take a chance that maybe his uninterested in college, horse crazed daughter might make something of herself in the horse industry. Unfortunately I didn’t, but that’s another story. Riding lessons were the best way, if not the only way I could get my foot in the door at the famous Butler Polo Sports Arena.

My Dad gave up his Sundays to give me this amazing opportunity. I’m sure there were a million other things he’d rather do on his day off. Then again, there was an appealing perk involved for him. The Saddle Club was a steakhouse and bar and conveniently adjacent to the riding arena. Not only could Dad enjoy a drink at the bar, but he could watch my lesson through a large window at the same time. Did he care about that? Probably not.

At eighteen, I was still taking lessons, with, I think his name was Lance? Hard name to forget… he looked like a Lance, and good looking enough to be on a Harlequin Romance book cover. By now, I had my own used car, and Dad was finally freed from his horse related responsibilities, almost, he still payed for the lessons.

Obviously, I needed a job. One evening, when leading my lesson horse back to the barn, I heard talk among staff; there was a shortage of help in the kitchen at the Saddle Club. Not a gravy job, but an employee pass would get me through the Butler Polo Sports Arena guard shack, and that meant I was in like flynn. I was all over that opportunity, asked that staff member his name, brushed myself off, and immediately applied for the job. Of course, mentioning the staff member who referred me. It was a done deal within an hour, I was hired and worked there for about a year, and free to roam the 100 million dollar Butler Polo Club empire.

During that year I made friends, and it wasn’t long before I met Michael Butler. I honestly don’t remember how. But I definitely remember the day when I was walking through the barn admiring the horses and bumped into him.  He was nice to me, beyond cool, and very good looking too I might add. We had a conversation about his horses which led up to a lot of questions about my equine experience. I told him I was a competitive hunter jumper, I was… but truthfully speaking, that was a bit of a stretch. If he questioned me in depth, he would not have been impressed. He did not. 

He said to me ” I need help with my polo horses, are you interested? Can you wrap?”  “Sure, yes! I answered. I’m definitely interested, and yes, I can wrap.” He meant leg wraps, and no, I didn’t know the proper way to wrap for polo, but I would learn, and FAST. I started the following week, which gave me time to learn from the other hot walkers and assistants what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t an easy job, it was fast paced, stressful, carried a lot of responsibility, and I loved it.

My first day working with Michael I learned of a completely different guy, nice, but very abrupt, stern, bossy, competitive, and all business. I was under one of his horses wrapping legs for a match, the only words he spoke to me were “If I lose a wrap, you’re fired.” No pressure there, geez, I was mortified, and asked another assistant to check my wraps. Was he serious? Who knows, one thing for sure, he knew how to make sure he never lost a wrap. Did he ever lose one of my wraps? Hell no!

I never saw Michael much, hardly spoke at all during a match, but after, he was always nice to me. There were parties, a lot of parties. Help was never invited, but never say never, because Michael did invite me once. A cherished moment indeed…. right up until the part when he told me not to drive my old Buick there. I took that as a clue, and didn’t go.

I don’t remember how long I worked for Michael, but it could have been a lot longer than it was. He offered me a job working with him as a permanent member of his team, which meant travel. I was then engaged to be married and turned down the job. Sometimes I wonder where that journey would have taken me in life. No regrets, I’ve good memories of a very special time in my life.

Michael Butler was even more interesting and accomplished than I knew, I ran across this article and once again, some 40 years later, was dazzled by this incredibly interesting man.  Here’s a little more about him and the Butler family.

Memoirs of a Millionaire Hippie

BY LAUREN WILLIAMSON

Michael Butler’s bio reads like the real-life adventures of the Most Interesting Man in the World: Polo with Prince Charles? Check. Nine-month safari in Africa? Check. Flings with Audrey Hepburn and Rock Hudson? Check and check. An heir to the Butler Paper fortune and the son of Oak Brook’s founding father, he brought counterculture to the mainstream as the original Broadway producer of Hair… Read Article

History of Oak Brook Polo

Michael Butler grew up playing polo in Oak Brook and around the world.  As Michael recalled those days where Kings really did play on the Oak Brook Polo Fields, he reminisced,  “Nothing has had such an influence on my life than the sport of polo.”
The history of how Oak Brook and the game of kings became synonymous started with a small paper mill built on the Fox River in St. Charles. Julius Wales Butler moved from the east coast to Illinois and became partners with Oliver Morris to create the prosperous, JW Butler Paper Company. Continue Reading

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