Commanders in Chief
These two presidents have each other’s backs
by Kelly Knufken and Julene Snyder

President Rhett Buttle and USD President Mary E. Lyons know all about the pressures of leadership. When Buttle told Lyons that he loved USD, she replied, “USD loves you too, but don’t kill yourself with overwork.”

Rhett Buttle knows things about the university that the rest of us aren’t privy to. For example, he’s got the inside story on where the skeletons are buried. “He’s actually created quite a few,” president Mary Lyons jokes, with obvious affection. You see, Buttle, a senior, has quite a lot in common with USD’s top honcho. He’s also a commander in chief — of the Associated Students. But in a unique collaboration, Buttle has gone where no former A.S. president has gone before: inside the inner workings of the top echelon of university administration.

“I was hired as a part-time administrative assistant in the president’s office last summer,” Buttle recalls. “My job was to do random tasks, answer the phone and work with the board of trustees.”

And then he was elected A.S. president.

“As president, I’m the voice of the students,” he explains. “And while the students could be in opposition to the administration, this office wants students’ voices to be heard. And now Dr. Lyons and I have this unique opportunity to work together.”

“He’s amazingly involved all over campus,” Lyons says. “I really depend on Rhett for hearing the truth.”

“Keeping it real,” he chimes in.

Both presidents are devoted to projects that benefit not just USD students, but the university as a whole, such as community service-learning and outreach. Additionally, the pair has spent a lot of time coming up with creative ideas to continue furthering the university’s mission. “We work together on the strategic initiatives,” Buttle explains. “Students have been involved with that effort from the start, but they’re not just important to students and A.S. executives, but to Dr. Lyons as well.”

Buttle says one issue that students are particularly passionate about is recycling efforts on campus. “It really comes back to the idea of developing Catholic social thought, such as stewardship of the earth,” he says. “I’ve made it a priority to bring it to the attention of the president, to let her know just how interested the students are in this issue, and she fully supports us. In fact, she helped to pull all the bodies from across campus that we needed to get together so that we can get it done.”

Though she admits her schedule can be ridiculously busy, Lyons is determined not to be perceived as an absentee president. She makes it a priority to be on hand for the events that matter to students. Again, Buttle helps out.

“She’s the busiest woman I know,” he says. “And I’m a busy student. But working here helps me know how processes work.

I make sure that we’re both at key events that are significant to students, such as orientation and athletic events, and she makes sure that I’m with her at the meetings that matter. What’s most important is that I’m able to show her what’s on the minds of students.“

At their first official meeting, Buttle recalls telling the president of his love for USD. “She said, ‘USD loves you too, but don’t kill yourself with overwork.’”

“I do ask him if he’s eating right,” Lyons admits.

“She asks me if I’m sleeping,” he adds.

“I really do care about his well-being, as I do for all students,” the president says. “This job can be isolating. While I have a lot of people that protect me from that, who makes sure he’s OK?”

Being in such close proximity means that the two presidents have a chance to just informally shoot the breeze and talk about the minutiae of their lives.

“I’m several generations removed from college life,” Lyons says. “Having Rhett here really helps me keep my thumb on the pulse of the undergraduates. For me this is life-giving. If I didn’t have the relationships with students, I might as well be a bureaucrat somewhere.”