Sam Butcher, Who Gave the World Precious Moments, Dies at 85

Sam Butcher, the soft-spoken artist whose doe-eyed, pastel-hued porcelain Precious Moments figurines ignited a global collecting frenzy and made him a wealthy man, and whose Christian faith spurred him to build his own version of the Sistine Chapel in Carthage, Mo., died on May 20 at his home there. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by his son Jon.

Mr. Butcher was the Michelangelo of Missouri, and his adorable snub-nosed Precious Moments characters were “the Beanie Babies of porcelain,” as The Wall Street Journal once put it. Their zealous collectors, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, built rooms for their Precious Moments figurines, convened in regional clubs and made pilgrimages to Carthage, where they slept in the Precious Moments motel or the R.V. park, marveled at the Precious Moments Fountain of the Angels, dined in the Precious Moments food courts and wandered the 30-acre grounds. (Carthage also hosted Precious Moments weddings.)

For a time, the Precious Moments Care-a-Van — an 18-wheeler kitted out like a museum, filled with figurines and dioramas that told Mr. Butcher’s life story — toured the country. There were hundreds and hundreds of Precious Moments licensees, which made hats, keychains, watches, greeting cards, books and a children’s Bible. At the company’s peak, in 1996 and 1997, Precious Moments’ global retail sales reached over $500 million each year, a stunning amount for a man who was once so poor that he struggled to buy groceries for his seven children.

Mr. Butcher, whose fans sought him out at the Precious Moments compound to autograph their figurines and posters (he always carried two pens to do so), was an unlikely-looking millionaire: a rumpled figure typically clad in bluejeans and a T-shirt, with paint in his bushy hair and a shy smile.

“Most people just think I’m the gardener,” he said.

Mr. Butcher had been working with an international nondenominational ministry for children, teaching and illustrating Bible stories, when he and a colleague, Bill Biel, began making inspirational greeting cards and posters featuring his winsome characters in the early 1970s. “I came up with ‘Precious’ and he came up with ‘Moments,’” Mr. Butcher told The Kansas City Star in 1995.

At a trade show the two men attended, Eugene Freedman, president of the Enesco Group, a giftware company based in Illinois, saw the waifish children they had created and thought they had commercial potential as figurines — competitors, perhaps, for those made by the veteran collectibles giant Hummel. When Yasuhei Fujioka, the Japanese sculptor Mr. Freedman commissioned to translate Mr. Butcher’s characters into porcelain, made the first figurine, a boy and girl cuddled up on a tree stump with the title “Love One Another,” Mr. Butcher later said, he fell to his knees and wept.

In 1978, Enesco introduced 21 characters. By 1995, the company said, Precious Moments were the No. 1 collectible in the world.

In 1984, Mr. Butcher was living in Michigan and traveling to his factories in Asia when, he said, God directed him to build a chapel. Driving home from a business trip to Arizona, he took a detour to look for a site. He stopped in Carthage for the night — he was hungry and tired and needed gas — and the next morning, as he told it, God said, “You are here.”

He bought 17½ acres, to which he would add over the years. He’d been to Rome and seen the Sistine Chapel, and that was his inspiration for the 9,000-square-foot shrine he built, which he covered with 84 murals, along with bronze panels and stained-glass windows. It took four years to build; Mr. Butcher often worked, as Michelangelo had, flat on his back, suspended on scaffolding, painting the stories of the Bible from the creation to the resurrection. But unlike Michelangelo, who was known for his muscular figures, Mr. Butcher peopled his chapel with his signature sprites. And he allowed himself some creative leeway.

For his depiction of the first day of creation, from the Book of Genesis — the part where God said, “Let there be light” — Mr. Butcher painted three angels armed with flashlights. For Day Four, when God made the heavens, Mr. Butcher painted an angelic basketball team he called the Shooting Stars.

Other areas of the chapel are more sober. In Hallelujah Square, a crowd favorite, dozens of angels are shown entering heaven, some of them inspired by the terminally ill children who had visited the chapel with their parents, and whose likenesses Mr. Butcher painted after their deaths. He built a room he dedicated to his son Philip, who died in 1990, and a tower for his son Tim, who died in 2012. A book of remembrances at the chapel is filled with the names of visitors’ loved ones, along with prayers and notes: “My granddaddy and aunt died,” a young girl named Jenni wrote, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun in 1998. “And my cat Midnight ran away.”

Samuel John Butcher was born on New Year’s Day, 1939, in Jackson, Mich., one of five children of Leon Butcher, who owned a gas station, and Evelyn (Khoury) Butcher.

Sam grew up in Redding, Calif., and began painting when he was 5. Money was tight and the family budget did not stretch to art supplies, so he used rolls of paper salvaged from the local dump and leftover automotive paint from his father’s business. Encouraged by his high school art teacher, he won a scholarship to the California College of the Arts, which was then based in Oakland.

He married Katie Cushman, a friend from high school, in 1959; her father sold a cow to pay for the wedding. When she had their first child, Jon, in 1962, Sam dropped out of college and worked, variously, as a janitor; in a wallpaper shop, where he made window displays; and as a cook in a pancake house.

The couple began attending a local Baptist church, and one Sunday Mr. Butcher walked off with a hymnal by mistake. The guilt he felt sparked something in him; by the following Sunday, he was a convert.

They divorced in 1987 (but remained close), and Mr. Butcher moved out of the grand house they had built together on the Precious Moments complex and into the garage, though he kept it open for visitors to tour. They gawked at the stone fountain, the Italian marble floors, the Czechoslovakian chandeliers and the five-foot-high cloisonné vases lining the hallways. A pair of teak elephants, six feet tall, guarded the front door, as did a security guard.

“After my wife Katie left,” Mr. Butcher told The Kansas City Star, “I felt I never wanted to live in this house. I’m just a messy old artist, so I just live in the garage and paint, and when I’m done I just go to sleep.”

In addition to his son Jon, Mr. Butcher is survived by another son, Don; three daughters, Tammy Bearinger, Deb Butcher and Heather Butcher; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mr. Biel and Mr. Butcher parted ways when Mr. Butcher moved to Missouri in the early 1980s.

In his prime, Mr. Butcher could knock out three Precious Moments paintings in an evening; his son Jon estimated that he made some 4,000 in his lifetime. “But the chapel was a completely different animal,” he said. “Dad was never quite satisfied. He was constantly reworking it” — adding characters, tweaking the folds of an angel’s robes, changing the colors of a patch of clouds.

“My work is never done and the chapel will never be done because I’m always inspired to do something else,” Mr. Butcher told The Carthage Press in 2015. “They usually say job well done, but mine is always job almost well done. It’s very, very close to being a job well done.”

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