Water Well Journal Q&A

The National Ground Water Association’s retiring director of education has made a significant impact on the Association and groundwater industry in 49 years.

By Thad Plumley

Kathy Butcher, CMP

There is no doubt a random copy of Water Well Journal impacted the groundwater industry and its largest trade association forever.

It wasn’t an article that changed everything. And it wasn’t a photo. It wasn’t even an editorial by a writer calling for an important change. It was that the publication’s mere presence caused a letter to be written.

The letter in 1973 was from Kathy Butcher, a recent college graduate in Washington, Pennsylvania, to Jay Lehr, then the executive director of the National Water Well Association (which became the National Ground Water Association in 1991).

“I knew I wanted to explore alternatives to teaching. I was making the bed at home and saw a copy of WWJ,” recalls Butcher, who is retiring as the NGWA director of education on June 30 after 49 years with the Association.

“I asked my mother where NWWA was located and she said ‘Columbus, Ohio.’ I wrote a letter to Jay asking if there were any open positions and told him of my background and degree. He called the next week and we talked. I then went to Columbus for an interview. When I was hired, I was supposed to start in June, but Jay said they were really backlogged, so I started a month earlier.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Butcher (far right) holds a ribbon so that colleague Pat Smith (second from left) can cut it to start the NWWA National Convention in 1974 in Denver, Colorado. Past President Walter Stockert (center) is also holding the ribbon beside his wife, Barbara (third from left). The event marked the first convention that Butcher oversaw as a NWWA staff member.

Butcher immediately brought something unique to the staff on her first day—water well drilling knowledge. Her parents owned and ran Pioneer Drilling and Pump Co., a firm founded by her grandfather, Joseph Heidelmeier, in the 1920s.

“Kathy was the ideal employee for the association,” says Anita Stanley, who interviewed Butcher and worked at NGWA from 1972-2002. “She was hard-working, smart, and dedicated. And she was something that no other staff member could claim: She had actually worked in the water well industry.”

In her first role, Butcher was mailing out and grading returned water well correspondence courses. As she retires, she leaves behind NGWA’s vast educational offerings which include a mix of short courses, conferences, custom courses, online offerings, and of course, Groundwater Week, the biggest trade show in the industry.

She has also overseen for decades NGWA’s voluntary certification program and The Groundwater Foundation’s Darcy Lecture Series in Groundwater Science and McEllhiney Lecture Series in Water Well Technology, which have not only been presented around the country, but all around the world.

Attendees at the Delegates Meeting at Groundwater Week2021 in Nashville, Tennessee, were told of Butcher’s upcoming retirement by Jack Henrich, MGWC, CVCLD, CGD, a past president of NGWA who has worked with Butcher on a variety of certification and educational projects through the years.

“When I got to Groundwater Week, a few others who knew about her retirement insisted that during the Delegates Meeting I recognize her,” Henrich shares. “So, after I said a few things, I asked the audience to recognize Kathy and the room exploded into a standing ovation. That is how much she means to all members of NGWA. Of course, she just kept helping run the meeting.”

Butcher has said she will keep busy in her retirement. Her plans include volunteer efforts and possibly pursuing her Ph.D.

Kevin McCray, CAE, NGWA’s CEO from 1995-2017, began working at NGWA in 1979 when Butcher had been there only six years.

Butcher (left) with colleagues at a NWWA Outdoor Action Demo event in 1990 in Las Vegas. Butcher cites the 1987 Action Demo event in Las Vegas as the most complex in her education career. Multiple wells were drilled on site and there were courses and a conference at the same time.

“While always polite and patient, Kathy knew what needed to be done and she worked hard to get it done,” he says. “She’s earned her reward of now focusing on her own interests rather than on her decades-long commitment to making groundwater professionals better.”

WWJ caught up with Butcher and asked her to reflect on her long career at NGWA and in the groundwater industry.

Water Well Journal: As your career at NGWA winds down, what are some of the first memories that come to mind?
Kathy Butcher, CMP: Oh, there are several. Some of them are:

  • The interesting people I’ve met, often through some bizarre circumstances.
  • The years we welcomed our 15,000th and 25,000th members and we didn’t even have a membership brochure.
  • The fire in Atlanta, Georgia, the night before the 1982 National Convention and Exposition opened.
  • Experiencing the change in outlook by contractors to expand and improve their skills.
  • Greater collaboration and interaction between the contractors and the scientists and engineers.

WWJ: What has been some of the events or innovations in professional training that stand out in your career?
Butcher: While it is possible we were not the first to offer it, we were one of the first to offer the required 40-hour OSHA HazMat course where attendees suited up and experienced real-world situations. These courses were offered at fire-training academies.

We were also the first or among the first to offer hands-on training on computer software groundwater programs—and that situation was the catalyst for our having computers for the Association staff. In those days, you couldn’t rent computers.

NWWA employee Wayne McLaughlin (far left) and Butcher (second from left) have dinner with Iris and “Mac” McNeal, a NWWA board member, in a showroom at the Caesars Palace casino in 1976 in Las Vegas when the NWWA Convention was held there that year.

Obviously, COVID-19 did more to change the delivery of education and it expedited acceptance of electronic and remote educational offerings by oversight agencies by pure necessity. NGWA had to migrate to recording and packaging more topics for webinars in addition to the great challenge of moving the Groundwater Week 2020 to virtual. We were more fortunate than most as we started looking at alternatives in April and Groundwater Week was not scheduled until December.

However, I have to say our Outdoor Action event in 1987 in Las Vegas, Nevada, was by far the most complicated event we’ve run in half a century, and it was designed to have some educational component for every segment of the groundwater industry. We had concurrent, multi-day short courses; three concurrent conference sessions; an outdoor demonstration area with at least three demos occurring at any one time; an exhibit hall; and we physically drilled multiple wells using different methods.

While it was more up close and personal than hands-on, NWWA provided guidance, instruction, and training for those working in an industry spurred by the passage of Superfund. This included focusing on the construction of monitoring wells as a diversification for contractors.

During that first Outdoor Action, we drilled on a vacant lot across from the Tropicana Hotel. That lot was adjacent to one bordering the Las Vegas Strip with an abandoned gas station. During our demonstration and drilling activities, we encountered product so pure from a leaking underground storage tank it was reported one could safely pump it into a car. Now every place we drilled on has a parking garage, a condominium tower, or some other commercial entity on it.

WWJ: Do you recall some of the first shows you attended or worked?
Butcher: I attended two national conventions, probably six or so Northeast Ground Water Expositions, and at least two of the December events that Sanderson Cyclone used to hold in Ohio before I came to NWWA. When I began at the Association, I worked registration at the 1973 show in Indianapolis, Indiana, and had the responsibility for the 1974 exposition in Denver, Colorado.

Butcher addresses attendees at the NWWA National Convention in 1987 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Butcher has seen the event grow to one with more than 5000 attendees from all 50 states and several nations.

WWJ: Are there any NGWA educational events or shows that are among your favorites? Why?
Butcher: My favorite was the Petroleum Hydrocarbons and Organic Chemicals Conference and Exposition events we used to hold. It was always a grueling three days, but it was especially interesting because the base of participation came from the petroleum folks, not the groundwater industry. It emphasized where the two industries were and are still related.

WWJ: For years, you created a crossword puzzle in Water Well Journal. How did that idea come about and how fun was it to do?
Butcher: We were looking at new and different options for WWJ columns and enhancements after the 25th anniversary. I don’t remember if I was drafted or volunteered to try my hand at crafting a crossword puzzle, but the first effort appeared in the November 1973 issue followed by a Christmas-themed one.

The endeavor somehow morphed into a regular WWJ entry called The Lighter Side, which included the Puzzle Well, The Sands of Time, and a Did You Know component. While the historical account and the interesting facts sections went away in 1975, the Puzzle Well remained until 1996.

WWJ: Who are some of the people who helped you most in your career? Why were they instrumental for you?
Butcher: Jay H. Lehr, NWWA executive director; Larry Bechler, Franklin Electric; Mac McNeal, Merrill Manufacturing; Gordy Freeburg, Koehring Company; Becky Sterzing, Austin Pump; Jim Warman, Auburn University; Wayne Pettyjohn (both The Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University); John Schnieders, Water Systems Engineering; Walter Stockert, Stockert Drilling Company; Charlotte Banks, Ro-Banks; Sam Geffen, Baroid; Steve Maslansky, Maslansky Geoscience; Roger Renner, E.H. Renner; and Richard Thron, Mantyla Well Company.

I could add many more names to the list, and I don’t want anyone to think I intentionally slighted them. Each one of these individuals taught me something about the bonds in our industry, whether it be the science or application, the unique features of working for an association, and the strength of the individual relationships.

Butcher with five NGWA past presidents in 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee, (from left): Alan Eades, CWD/PI, CVCLD; Tom Downey, CWD/PI; Roger Renner, MGWC, NGWAF; Richard Thron, MGWC, NGWAF; and Scott Fowler, CWD/PI.

Jay Lehr provided me and others starting their careers like Anita Stanley, Kevin McCray, and Tyler Gass with opportunities and responsibilities I doubt any of us would have enjoyed elsewhere.

WWJ: Any final thoughts or wishes to pass on to groundwater professionals reading this in Water Well Journal?
Butcher: Our industry is fortunate that it provides one of the resources required to sustain life. Although part of the industry is indeed mature, there is an untapped potential that matches the significant challenges of locating sufficient potable supplies, developing and implementing treatments to restore groundwater to potable/useable inventories, and maximizing technologies to capture and store supplies. And yes, I know all of this must be done in a complex regulatory environment to which all sections are subject in a time of extremely expensive capital equipment.

While I have heard that even with the employee shortage and the supply chain disruptions that most companies have had really good years financially since March 2020, I do hope that all companies have also been saving and investing for the future economic conditions that eventually always change.

My final hope is that the industry in general continues through its expertise and growing professionalism to totally put to rest the stigma of the well digger.

Kathy was the backbone of NWWA during my 25 years there. She helped it grow from a small trade group to a large trade and professional society for over four decades now.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D.
NWWA executive director, 1968-1991

She was perfect for a role at NWWA . . . and that perfection played out over the many years she spent at the Association. As Kathy grew in her role, she became even more valuable to the organization and to the industry. The day she walked in the door was a lucky day for NGWA. She was a joy to work with and it is hard to imagine the place without her.
Anita Stanley
WWJ editor, 1972-1999, NGWA publisher, 1991-2002

Kathy brought to her work at the Association not only the insights to the challenges of operating a family water well business, she also brought a strong work ethic. In my working days, I prided myself at being the first to arrive and the last to leave. Except there was always one colleague who was better than me on both ends of the workday—Kathy.
Kevin McCray, CAE
NGWA CEO, 1995-2017, WWJ assistant editor, 1979-1983

Whatever project we were working on, she was proficient in what we were doing to aid us in achieving the desired goals. We would basically start with little or nothing and end up building an important part of the current NGWA knowledge set. Just look at where NGWA started and where it is now. Kathy deserves a lot of the credit, which she is too humble to admit!
Jack Henrich, MGWC, CVCLD, CGD
NGWA president, 2010

Kathy embodies NGWA to me. It appeared she was in every aspect of the organization at times. She gave it the spirit for every job that had a need. She was the planner, organizer, and expediter personified!
John Schneiders, Ph.D.
The Groundwater Foundation’s McEllhiney lecturer, 2002

There is no doubt NGWA, and the entire groundwater profession, is better because of Kathy. I’ll also add that I know I am a better association professional because of Kathy. I am sure many of her past and present colleagues would say the same about themselves.
Thad Plumley
NGWA director of publications, 2004-present, WWJ senior editor, 2000-2004

She is a consummate professional with a work ethic that is unparalleled today. Over the past 49 years with the Association, she has contributed more to the organization and industry than any person before and more than likely after her. Her contributions are far too many to count, but we can measure the accomplishments by the footprint she will leave behind.
Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC
NGWA CEO, 2017-present

Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.

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