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Willie Butler

Cook/Storeroom Supervisor-in-Training 

At OKCU since 2006

The gate of the Caf is still down at 10 on Sunday morning, but Willie Butler saunters out to chat with the students who are congregating for his famous weekend pancake brunch. 

“Everybody who said they’re coming early came early today,” he tells students, sliding into a club chair. “Gotta be in that first 10, or you are lost in the crowd.” 

It’s the last brunch of the semester—the day before finals—and Willie has promised epic pancakes. If students don’t line up early, they’ll be waiting a long time. The previous week, the line didn’t let up until 1:15 p.m.—15 minutes before the Caf closed. Worse than the line, perhaps, if students wait to show up, they might miss out on specialty pancakes. 

“I got a lot of stuff today. When it runs out, it runs out,” Willie tells the students. He falls into an announcer’s cadence: “Got about 33 different things up there, from poppyseed to cheesecake to cookie dough—everything. Going out with a bang. I got a cart at the end where you put your own toppings on. Got chocolate icing, two things of vanilla icing, Hershey’s syrup, caramel, strawberry glazed … I got some honey and some powdered sugar.” 

A student, Tyler, smiles and says, “You’re going crazy.” 

Five years ago, Willie was promoted to dining room supervisor for one weekend. His boss received so many emails by the start of the week from students wanting Willie back as chef, he struck a deal—keep the pay but return to cooking for students, he says. 

Willie spent 13 years in the Army, stationed in Germany as a tank driver, working with explosives and ammunition. Cooking was a hobby after growing up with 14 sisters in Michigan.

“I grew up in a house full of women, so what else is there to do?” he jokes. “I learned everything from them.” Now, he and a nephew are the family cooks at holidays while the women “watch the kids and watch the sports,” he says, laughing. He estimates he has 40 to 50 nieces; the family is spread from Oklahoma to Texas, Michigan to North Carolina.

When Willie started at OKCU, students did not love the Caf’s standard breakfast recipes, he says. 

“I got smart—I started buying my own stuff for them,” he says. He goes to Walmart every Friday after asking students what they want. “If I can spend $20 in two days to make everybody happy, I beat the system. It’s my way of giving back to them. They’re worth it.”

After Willie opens the gate to the Caf, he’s on. “Everybody was telling me I couldn’t take a break yesterday until after they got out of line. ‘After me, Willie, after me.’” 

Every half hour, the dishwasher retrieves Willie’s pile of mixing bowls. White plates tower behind the cooktop by the French toast mix, and Willie estimates he goes through 200 during brunch.

“Talk to me, young man,” he tells a student in line.

The student asks, “Can I get a cookie dough pancake and a red velvet pancake?”

“You want one of each or together?”

“One of each, please”

Willie keeps the line rolling, the pancakes flipping, and the students happy.

“Willie makes the best pancakes, and we love him as a person,” student Tatum says. “He’s just a lot of fun to come to in the mornings. We come basically every Saturday and Sunday all year.”

The craziest pancake she and student Arianna have tried is a peanut butter pancake with “anything that has peanuts in it”: Reese’s pieces, peanut butter cups, peanut butter chips, and peanut butter. “It’s crazy but so good.”

Arianna agrees Willie is “the best.” “He really gets to know the kids that are waiting in his line. We tend to come early. He walks out and talk to us.”

The students are Willie’s therapy, he says. “They calm me down and keep me cool and level.”

His favorite part of the job is cooking for Gamma Phi Beta’s Pancake Palooza fundraiser every spring.

“This last year was the best one because (Pancake Palooza) was actually on my birthday,” he says. “I brought my birthday in with my sisters. I’m a Gamma guy. Don’t you forget that, either,” he laughs. The Gamma Phi Betas in line tell him, “We love you, Willie.”

In fact, Willie cooks for many who ask: sororities, fraternities, the Broadway Bound dance camp, and Methodist summer camps. He chips in ingredients and gets Walmart to donate, too, when students are raising money for a cause.

“I enjoy everybody—that’s what makes this fun. I’m here for them.” He likes how everybody feels like family at OKCU “from the president on down.” He gets to know students starting in high school when they attend camps. He knew one student from her high school freshman year through her college senior year, and he’s friends with her parents on Facebook.

Willie jokes with students in line about loading up on sugar for studying. One student laments a summer without Willie’s brunches: “How will I survive?”

“Easy,” Willie says. “Remember you’ll come back and see me again.”