Chief Leprechaun Mike Butler and crew get it done
With bagpipes wailing Irish tunes and green-clad celebrants watching from the banks of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, Mike Butler’s two-boat crew slams over the choppy waves, scattering a fine orange powder overboard. In their wake, the murky brown water turns yellow, then lime, and finally a vibrant emerald green, inspiring cheers from thousands of onlookers assembled for Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Chicagoans attribute the transformation to a bit of Irish magic, as well as to the gregarious Butler, 75, who for nearly four decades has colored the Windy City’s river for the Irish-inspired holiday. From the banks of the river, Butler coordinates the spectacle while keeping the dye’s “recipe” top secret, making Chicago the only city in the world to celebrate St. Patty’s Day by greening a major river.
“We want our parade to be different from everyone else’s,” says Butler, of Darien, Ill. (pop. 22,860), a bedroom community of Chicago.
Volunteering his services each year for the festivities, Butler exudes a contagious and knowledgeable enthusiasm.
“No one else knows how to do this,” says Kevin Sherlock, 52, parade coordinator for the Chicago Journeyman’s Plumbers Union, which sponsors the event. “It’s our heritage and tradition. People come from all over the world to watch.”
The tradition began in 1961 when the union’s then-general manager, Stephen J. Bailey, discovered that plumbers used green dye to trace pollution sources into the river. He recognized the dye’s potential for Chicago, known for its large St. Patrick’s celebration on the Saturday of or before March 17.
“We learned how to do it the hard way,” says Butler, who was deputy of the Chicago Port Authority in 1974 when he joined the crew. At first, the team used 100 pounds of aircraft rescue dye that colored the river for a week, and environmentalists objected to its oil base. Using food coloring proved ineffective, while shooting the dye into the river with fireboat water guns colored cars on a nearby expressway.
Today, crewmen use ordinary flour sifters to distribute 40 pounds of powder that is mixed into the water by the boats’ outboard motors. The dye colors the water for about 24 hours and has been tested and found environmentally safe by independent chemists.
“After 40 years, we’ve got it down pat,” Butler declares.
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