Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt

Our Yellow Rose Inspiration

Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt

Nov. 22, 1971 Letter from Richard M. Bruner, Administrative Assistant to Dr. David Wade, Commissioner of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation to Texas State Senator Don Kennard. Mr. Bruner enclosed biographical information on the members of the board of the Department, as requested by Mr. Kennard.

“Mrs. Howard E. Butt is a charter member of the Texas Board of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, having been appointed in 1955 to the Board for Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools. Although she is a native of Kerrville, she is a longtime resident of Corpus Christi. She is active in many civic organizations, both state and national, and is a member of the Parksdale Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. Her main interest is that of promoting better services and facilities for the mentally ill and mentally retarded in the State of Texas. Her husband is the founder of the H.E.B. supermarket chain. The couple have two sons and a daughter.”

This brief introduction does not even come close to documenting the many accomplishments of this true woman of Texas. Long before HEB  had locations across the state, Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt was finding ways to meet the needs of families, immigrants and the disabled.

Born February 4, 1903

Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth was born February 4, 1903, near Loma Vista, Texas, to Rosa Ross and Thomas Holdsworth. Thomas was born in England and came to Texas with his widowed father. Her father’s father also called Thomas was a schoolmaster. The younger Thomas married Rosa, who was a teacher like her father-in-law. Education played an important role in Elizabeth’s family life. 

Early life

The family moved to Kerrville and Mary, graduated from Kerrville’s Tivy High School. Her roots were English and Texan and created a young woman that was remembered by a classmate as having a “lady like” manner. After she graduated from high school, she attended the University of Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a teaching degree. She taught first graders for a time in the Kerrville area, in the 1920s. Though she was a teacher throughout her life, though she spent very few years in an actual classroom.  The state of Texas became Mary’s classroom. Her greatest lesson was teaching civic duty to her children and others by providing libraries, getting marginalized populations the health care and child care they needed when no services were  available at the time. 


No doubt Mary’s shy but charming manner and soft-spoken way enchanted one local grocer in Kerrville. In 1924, she married Howard Edward Butt, the owner of a small grocery store started by his mother. At 29, Howard Butt wrote to his fiancé before their wedding, “May God grant that our united life may be felt as a great and lasting good in our community,” and “Any other foundation would not support the edifice we dream of building.” Howard and Mary shared a God given vision to serve those around them in need and drive that allowed their business to expand and thrive. Mary’s determination has been described by her granddaughter Elizabeth Crook, “Like the other Holdsworths, she had almond shaped eyes with a broad face, and a wide jaw known in the family as the “Holdsworth mandible” “Feel my jaw,” my grandmother used to tell my grandfather when he tried to make her change her mind.”

Move to the Valley

Five years after they were married, the couple moved to Brownsville to expand their business to the Rio Grande Valley. Later they relocated again to nearby Harlingen. As the business grew, Mary began to see the needs of the community and sought to meet them. Mr. Butt said once, “I make the money, and Mary spends it [on worthy causes]. And I am glad she does.” 

Mary though only in her 20’s and raising three children of her own, made her dining room the area office for the State Crippled Children’s Program.  Other projects that addressed the health and educational needs of South Texan families, no matter a person’s race, were :

  • Expanded inadequate library services. 
  • Began a medical program for diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis throughout the valley. Howard Butt’s father and brother both succumbed to the disease. 
  • Provided the very first equipment for testing the hearing and vision of the area’s elementary school children. 
  • When the Texas  legislative was in session, she became well known to all the committees.  She testified diligently about the inadequate funding to the agencies she served.  

heb foundation

In the early 30’s, the H. E. Butt Foundation was founded by Mary Holdsworth and Howard Butt, Sr. Their foundation, which is one of Texas’s oldest philanthropic organizations began with a focus on literacy and libraries, recreational facilities, education and mental health care.  Mary served as its first president. Mary and Howard, Sr., began to develop long-term goals to open a camp that would be available free of charge to anyone unable to afford a camp experience.

1940's Move to Corpus Christi

The couple moved to Corpus Christi in 1940, and Mary immediately got to work serving her new community.

  • Mary helped organize the local branches of the YWCA; the Nueces County home for the aged; the Nueces County Tuberculosis Hospital; and the local branch of the American Cancer Society. Seeing that childcare was scarce for African America children, Mary  founded the Mary Bethune Day Nursery.
  • In an effort to keep juvenile offenders separated from the adult population and have better living conditions, Mary called the fire department to have the old beat-up barracks the juvenile offenders had to live in —condemned .
  • Then she had the city build a new and separate juvenile center that was unattached to the local jails. 

1950's No slowing down

As Mrs. Butt entered her 50’s she showed no signs of slowing down. 

  • In 1953, she helped to establish the Hilltop TB Hospital in Corpus Christi and served five years as the chairman of its board. In the same year Mary Butt received an honorary doctor of law degree from Baylor University.
  • In 1954 the Howard and Mary Butt purchased  the 1900 acre Wolfe Ranch on the Frio River, for the sole purpose of creating a children’s camp for the care of emotionally disturbed children and to provide camp facilities  for retreat groups who could not afford them. In this same year, she was the first woman to be awarded the Mrs. South Texas Award in recognition of her work in the fields of “public health, social service, and education. 
  • In 1955, Governor Allan Shivers appointed her to the governing board of Texas State Hospitals, (later known as the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR). She served as the only woman member of the board for 18 years and was appointed by six different governors.

    Mrs. Butt took her appointment seriously as she visited every state hospital and advocated for treatment reform for the mentally ill. She felt that  patients should be  treated with the same dignity every human being deserves. She insisted that patients eat meals on dishes with silverware, rather than out of steel bowls with wooden spoons.

The Back Story of the Metal Bowls & Spoons

There is an interesting story recounted by her granddaughter Elizabeth Cook, “On one occasion, when her fellow board members were reluctant to approve the use of knives and forks for the patients at state mental hospitals, Mama Two (as she was called by Mr. Butt and the family) sent each board member a metal bowl and a large spoon like the ones the patients were required to use, suggesting that they eat their Christmas dinner from the bowl so they might know what it was like. Some of the board members became so annoyed with her pressures for reform that they secretly asked Governor Price Daniel to remove her. He summoned her to his office and offered her instead a place on the UT Board of Regents, but she declined his offer. She was not looking for power, she said; she was trying to effect reform. “I just want to finish the work I’ve started,” she told the governor. “Mr. Butt”—as she always referred to my grandfather—”would be very disappointed if I were not allowed to finish what I have started.” Mr. Butt was, of course, a major campaign contributor. I can see the scene now, Mama Two in her picture hat, her gloved hands in her lap, her smile whimsical, her voice soft, her threat beautifully veiled. She outlasted the other members of the board, and all of her reforms were eventually accomplished.”

1960's & 70's

  • In 1967, the Butts helped establish the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library in Kerrville. Its mission  to “provide the means by which people of all ages, interests, and circumstances may avail themselves of the recorded wisdom, experiences, and ideas of others,” according to the library’s website.  Mrs. Butt worked on the project personally and supervised the design of  the children’s reading area. Lady Bird Johnson, who was first lady at the time, came and gave the dedication. 
  • In 1968, Mr. and Mrs. Butt were awarded the Texas Library Association Philanthropic Award of the Year in recognition of their support to public libraries over their lifetime. 
  • In 1975, they were awarded the Brotherhood Award from the Corpus Christi Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in recognition of their their humanitarian work in Corpus Christi and throughout the state of Texas. 

Appreciation for years of service to Texas

  • In 1981, Mary received the first Yellow Rose Award by the Parent’s Association for the Retarded in Texas (PART). At the same time, the state Senate and House adopted resolutions commending her lifetime of service to the citizens of Texas.
  • On May 13, 1981, Governor William P. Clements designated her a member emeritus of the Texas Department of MHMR.
  • In 1986, the Texas Alliance for the Mentally Ill made Mrs. Butt the recipient of its lifetime award, in honor of her “leadership in improving human services for the people of Texas.”  

Never forgotten

  • On July 12, 1993, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Awards Committee selected her to receive the council’s highest award for “Meritorious Service to the Children of America.”
  • Mary died at her Corpus Christi home on October 6, 1993, at the age of 90, two years after her husband passed.
  • On March 23, 1995, the Senate of the State of Texas passed a resolution to “honor the life and memory of Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt and express appreciation for her many gifts to the citizens of our state”.

Mary Elizabeth Butt was a true advocate and stalwart for the developmentally disabled over her entire lifetime – especially children. We honor her work and legacy.     

A philanthropist in every sense of the word, she has been a true inspiration to all of us at PART.


  • Kristy Ozmun, “Butt, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 22, 2020,