The Rev. Calvin Butts III, former president of SUNY Old...

The Rev. Calvin Butts III, former president of SUNY Old Westbury, died Oct. 28 at age 73. Credit: Judy Walker

Mourners crammed into the pews of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church to mourn its longtime pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, at a funeral Friday afternoon that drew a capacity crowd of some 1,200 in the sanctuary and thousands more on a live stream. The service lasted into the evening.

Butts — church pastor for over 30 years, a local nonprofit real estate developer who raised over $1 billion to remake the neighborhood, and SUNY Old Westbury’s college president from 1999 to 2020 — died Oct. 28 at 73 of cancer.

“He was everything to us, and that’s why on this day, we are so grateful to gather in your name, to celebrate the life of Calvin Otis Butts the Third, a life so well lived,” the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman, an associate professor of theology and African American religion at Yale Divinity School and an assistant minister at Abyssinian Baptist from 2002 to 2012, said before Butts’ widow, Patricia, children and grandchildren in a front pew.

Mourners included the family and ordinary congregants but also a who’s who of power — Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and former President Bill Clinton — reflecting how Butts blended politics, religion and business to be a kingmaker with a reach way beyond his church on West 138th Street.

“I learned a lot from him, and I’m grateful for everything. I also occasionally took orders. Once, he called and said, ‘You know, in addition to Abyssinian, I am the president of SUNY at Old Westbury, and here’s what I need you to do. I want you to be in such-and-such at such-and-such a date, and here’s what I want you to say.’ And I saluted and showed up,” Clinton recalled to laughter from the attendees. “So, today, we salute and show up.”

(Clinton didn’t specify what the event was — and his office didn’t return an email seeking specifics — but Clinton was the speaker in April 2005 at the college’s International Partnership Luncheon, Newsday reported then. Butts was quoted as saying, “I’d do anything in the world for him right now.”)

On Friday, Butts, who started at the church as a 22-year-old seminarian, was memorialized in speech, song, prayer and tribute.

The particulars of the service were arranged by Butts himself, said the officiant, the Rev. D. Darrell Griffin, who urged the speakers to follow ground rules. One of the rules: “We do have someone who can sing, so when you get up, you don't have to do that.”

Nevertheless, Schumer broke out into song with the chorus from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — capping his remarks remembering “the glory of Doctor Butts” and Butts' penchant for voicing hard truths.

“Join me!” Schumer said to raucous laughter from the attendees, some of whom joined in. “‘Glory, glory hallelujah! / His truth is marching on!’”

“As we all know in this room, Pastor Butts’ truth is marching on!” said Schumer.

Griffin returned to the pulpit.

“Senator Schumer, you’re gonna get me in trouble,” Griffin said, quipping: “The pastor would be looking at me like, ‘I know he didn’t just do that!’ ”

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