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Face of the Week: Denise Butcher of Hereford High School

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Face of the Week

Tradition runs deep in the furrowed field rows and undulating pastures of northern Baltimore County. It survives, year after year, through a natural, native connection with the land – still strong even in these modern times. And it thrives, generation after generation, among the established families and farms tucked along the winding roads around Hereford and Sparks and Belfast and Butler.

So with tradition still a thick thread woven into life in the north county, the retirement of Denise Butcher becomes a Big Thing. Her tenure at Hereford High School may not total the most years of a BCPS retiree this year; even a teacher retiring from Hereford High this month has more years under her belt.

But Butcher has spent all of her 35 years at one place – the front office at Hereford High. Before that, she was a graduate from Hereford Junior-Senior High School, the same school her parents graduated from in 1956. And before that, her mother, Norma Jean Kearney, spent 35 years doing the same job in the front office at another school, Prettyboy Elementary School (when it was known as Sixth District Elementary School).

To extend the point a bit further, Butcher’s cousin, Kim Lovo, is also retiring this year from doing the same job as Butcher. For the past 33 years. At Hereford Middle School.


It’s no surprise, then, that Butcher considers herself Hereford through and through. “There have been a lot of memorable moments, though not all of them have been good,” she says on a recent weekday that is uncharacteristically quiet; summer break had begun for students a few days earlier. She recalls a time when two alumni died while serving in the military in the Middle East, or 9/11, when anxious parents clogged the roads to school to collect their children.

“We are a very close-knit community, and when something happens – good or bad – it affects everyone,” Butcher says.

But the good times shine brighter for Butcher – getting lights for the football field, two school renovations under her watch, seeing the old school water tower come down – she could watch it from her office window – and a sleek, new one erected. And all the students, the championships, the academic accomplishments, the staff, and being the first point of contact for thousands of parents and their children coming through the front door for the first or fiftieth time.

“It will seem strange waking up in the morning and not coming here,” she says. “But I’ll always love this place. I won’t be too far away. There will always be maroon blood in these veins.”

A constant presence      

Chances are that if you have attended or visited Hereford High School since Ronald Reagan was President, you’ve come across Butcher. From 1982 until 1996, she worked the school’s front office – greeting all who came into the school and handling everything from school security to making sure parent concerns were routed or handled appropriately.

In 1996, she began the second half of her career, moving into an office off the front lobby area as the principal’s administrative secretary. In all, she’s served under the leadership of six principals, from Lee Mitzel, Roger Marks, and Ray Gross to John Bereska, Andrew Last, and Joe Jira.

“Denise is like the silent wheel that kept things moving at Hereford High School,” says Jen O’Donovan of the school’s PTSA. “You needed something, she could make it happen. You needed information, she knew where to get it.  You needed something done, Denise knew how.” 

Adds Butcher of the front office positions, “You had to be on your toes the whole time. . . . I look back and think, ‘What an amazing time it’s been.’”

It almost didn’t happen. Growing up nearby, Denise Kearney knew her schools as places that were focal points of the community but – despite her mother’s tenure at Sixth District – not necessarily as a place of employment. “Keep in mind, there weren’t a lot of social activities then. We played softball at the schools and basketball, but we didn’t have social media and kids didn’t go to malls like they do today. To go to Towson was a big deal,” she says.

As president of the Future Business Leaders of America at what was then Hereford Junior-Senior High School, Denise figured she’d go into business when she graduated. When she did in 1981, she joined the staff at the former Sparks Bank. However, it didn’t take long for her to figure out that working in a back room with little public contact wasn’t for her.

A guidance counselor at Hereford suggested a different tack: a new job had just opened at school, and Denise would be perfect. It helped that she knew her interviewers well – administrators and educators who had been teaching her just a year earlier. Plus, she had helped out in the front office some as a student.

She got the job. “It was a little intimidating going to work at a school with 1,600 students, many of whom were not much younger than me,” Butcher says. “It was a little overwhelming at first being on the other side of the counter, but I knew I could do a good job.”

Hiring Butcher was a savvy move for several reasons. First, she knew many of the north county students and families, so “I knew who belonged to whom,” she says. Second, those families knew Butcher; she provided a friendly, welcoming face to greet people coming into the school.

“All who know her,” says Principal Jira, “recognize Denise for her grace and congeniality and her unconditional dedication to Hereford High School and all of its traditions, as well as her commitment to excellence.”

Looking ahead

In her final weeks at Hereford, Butcher has caught herself reflecting a few times on all that has gone before. So much is automated and digitized now; she remembers doing the school’s payroll by hand, for instance, and manually stuffing teachers’ checks into envelopes. Among the biggest changes, she notes, are all the increased security measures to screen visitors before they even enter the office.

“Customer service is still a priority in the front office, but the jobs have become so much more involved,” she says. “You still have to be on your game the whole time, but it’s a much less trusting time we live in now.”

She remembers the one time she thought about leaving the “Hereford Zone,” going so far as applying for positions at different schools in the county. But after a visit to Greenwood to follow up on her application, she recalls looking at the office she saw there and thinking, ‘Nope. (North County) is where I belong. I enjoy talking with the people there too much.’”

Says O’Donovan, “When a person has so much passion about something, it's not just a job. With her smiling face, you could tell it was more than just a job for her. Denise played an integral in keeping the front office running. She certainly will be missed by all.”  

Butcher lives now just over the state line in New Freedom, Pa., with her husband, Kim, a retired funeral director. Her own father, Stephen Kearney, had retired as a captain with 30 years of experience with the Baltimore County Fire Department, and she had planned to devote part of her own retirement to caring for him.

But Butcher’s father passed away on May 18, a difficult transition for a daughter whose office is decorated almost exclusively with pictures of school friends and family. “We were looking forward to (spending time with her father),” she says tearfully. “But we have nothing planned now. We’ll see how it goes.”

Even so, Butcher is likely to be busy. One daughter is close by, a school nurse who also lives in New Freedom, while her younger daughter works at a behavioral health facility in Boca Raton, Fla. And there are now grandchildren to tend as well.

And home will never be far away. “It’s getting a little surreal,” Butcher says of her upcoming retirement. “I’m still doing my job, but you’re also getting ready, looking at the office and thinking about what to keep and what to get rid of.

“But this is who I am, being part of this school community,” she says at last. “I do feel like I’ve seen history happen here; this will always be my second family.

 “My heart is here.”

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