Phil Butler

As songs from The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival streamed through a computer, Phil Butler recalled his career making maps of the Middle East, Russia and China.

Butler worked behind the scenes of U.S. military operations, but cartographers such as himself are becoming relics as technology advances.


For 26 years, Butler worked for the Department of Defense, and during his career he made topographic maps for the military. He used satellite imagery to make the maps for ground forces and aviation.

“Back then there were two bad guys — the Soviet Union and China,” Butler said. “At the time we were doing it, we could not admit we were doing it.”

But he said it’s no longer a secret that satellites were used. It was common to spot missile sites, primarily in Russia, when he was making the maps, Butler said.

“They looked like a big wheel with spokes,” he said.

He got involved in mapmaking after teaching for about five years. He heard about the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center (DMAAC) program, which was hiring many cartographers to support the cruise missile program.

He spent the rest of his career with the agency, which is now called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Old mapmaking methods involved using a foot wheel to move photo plates back and forth until dots on the terrain surface lined up. Much time was spent looking through an eyepiece, and he recalls that the room was kept cold to protect the computers.

He was also involved in making maps for Operation Desert Storm and other Middle Eastern affairs.

“We did a lot of work over the Middle East,” Butler said.

The time he started with the agency is called the “stubby pencil era” because cartographers worked over large tables and engraved maps by hand.

As Google and other programs make maps available in an instant, cartographers are being phased out as the government focuses more on analysis, he said.


Butler and his wife, Bea, moved to Washington from Mascoutah, Ill., in 2006 to be closer to grandchildren, and the couple like the area.

“It’s a great town,” Butler said. “I like the old river towns.”

Butler met his wife through one of his sisters. They both liked Peter, Paul & Mary and went to a couple of concerts.

He grew up in the small Illinois town of Gorham, which had a population of about 450, but he graduated high school in Mascoutah.

He attended Southern Illinois University, studied earth science and wanted to be a teacher. He graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education with an earth science major.

While he was doing his student teaching, he learned about a science teacher opening at a school in Illinois. At 28, he took the job, and his wife was pregnant. He left that job after five years to work for the U.S. Government.

Butler and his wife have three children — Molly Derner of Washington, a physical therapist; Katie Shaw of Warrenton, a guidance counselor; and Kelly Cannon, of Pittsburgh, Pa., a nurse anesthetist.

Military Service

In 1965, Butler entered the Navy for four years, saying he needed a break from school.

“I was getting kind of burned out on school,” he said.

He got a notice from the draft board saying, “We’d like you to join us.”

He took his physical in St. Louis and on the way home stopped at the recruiter’s office and joined the Navy so he could have a little control over his destiny.

Although he is a Vietnam-era veteran, he was spared the combat experience. He was stationed in Florida and California and worked as an instructor.

“We were responsible for checking out all the weapons systems,” Butler said.

In California, he worked at a naval air station in the middle of a desert, which he called an anomaly.

Not long after he got out of the Navy, his unit was sent into combat.

Right before his unit was deployed, his skipper called him into his office to see what Butler’s future plans were. Butler said he planned on going to college, and the skipper released him.

That was a big moment in his life because his circumstances could have changed greatly if he had gone to war.

“That was a pivotal point there,” he said, noting that he could have been stationed on an aircraft carrier in a war zone.

Working on a flight deck of an aircraft carrier “is a very dangerous place,” he said. He likely would have been in the Gulf of Tonkin, loading planes with bombs.

He does not regret missing the war. At the time he was released he was married and ready to start a family.

“It’s not a place for married people,” he said.


Butler took away a lot of useful knowledge from his military days, saying working as a crew leader taught him how to delegate authority.

Those skills have translated well into his life now as he is active in various community organizations, such as the Franklin County Community Tennis Association and the St. Peters United Church of Christ Council.

He also performs in the Washington Brass Band, enjoys wood carving and is a regular competitor at weekly matches of the tennis association.

He volunteers with Exceptional Equestrians, helping physically and mentally disabled children ride horses. He also is a tutor for the YMCA adult literacy program.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Butler said.