Jim Button: Friend to the City

Jim Button was a community builder and great friend to Calgary. His friend Dave Kelly reflects on what their friendship meant to him and to the city.

Dave Kelly and Jim Button. Photograph by Neil Zeller.

On January 19th of this year, Jim Button died after eight years of living with cancer.

A lot has been written about Button and his contributions to the city.

He was a co-founder of Village Brewery and instrumental in changing Alberta Liquor and Gaming regulations, which led to the growth of a vibrant and supportive craft brewing community in the province. He was a community organizer and fundraiser involved in the Circle Festival, Best of Calgary, the “Nut-raiser” fundraiser for the Prostate Cancer Centre and more.

But beyond his impact as a community organizer and entrepreneur, Button was also a great friend. As he wrote in the introduction to his blog, Gather with Jim, “I love making friends. But not just making them, collecting them.”

He was a friend to the city and he was a long-time friend to Avenue. He relentlessly supported and encouraged our team and the work we do.

He was also, along with his friend Dave Kelly, part of the first class of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40.

In recent years, Button and Kelly’s friendship had become something that the two men shared with Calgary. It was a great example, perhaps the primary example, of a public friendship.

Like most cities, Calgary has lots of public partnerships — work relationships, creative collaborators, and “power couples” — folks who shape the city through their shared work and volunteer efforts.

But through their friendship on display at Dave Kelly Live and online with “Jim Bits” (in which Button and Kelly chat while in the tub together — yes, it sounds weird, yes, it is a bit, but check it out anyway) — these two friends shaped the city through their shared generosity, humour and the obvious fun they were having just being together.

Kelly sat down for an interview with Avenue to talk about this friendship, what it meant to him and to the city.


KL: In the piece that you wrote for the Calgary Herald about Jim, you mentioned that Jim had a lot of friends, he had both breadth and depth of friends.

DK: Some people would say to me, “He was such a good friend of yours, Dave.” And I realized it’s not like I was the close friend and everyone else was different. We were all his good friends. It’s because he worked at it. He worked at it. He did. And it’s not like it was labour. But it was obvious looking back that he thought about it. I felt like he thinks about me. And he thinks about Käthe and he thinks about Amy and he thinks about whoever.

At one point at the end, in hospice, he said, out of the blue, “Dave, you know, you’re a good dad.” And it just broke me, because he knew that’s what I think about.

He knew what mattered to people. Each person he knew, he knew what mattered to them because he thought about it.

I think better than almost anybody, he actually thought about what does it mean to be a friend.


KL: You had a very public friendship that played out on the stage of Dave Kelly Live and on screen in Jim’s Bits and all these different public venues. You were making something that is usually private something public that the city shared. What was it like to have a public friendship with Jim?

DK: It was the luckiest, luckiest, luckiest thing ever. Because I knew that it was important to Jim. When Jimmy got sick, he needed things to look forward to. And especially, there were a few years where it was just touch and go for a while. And [his wife] Tracey would say, ‘He has your show on his calendar, and it gives him something to look for, and to look forward to, and to laugh about.”

So that was one part — I could help him look forward to something fun.

And he didn’t want dying to be a secret. He knew that there were lots of people out there who were dying in secret and felt they couldn’t talk about it. They couldn’t talk about what that was like. What it was like to be scared; what it was like to be alone. What it was like to face death. So when he was like, ‘I want to do this out loud,’ I was like, okay, I can help with that. I was able to help in one piece of what Jim wanted, and I feel so lucky about that.


KL: So that public side of the friendship, did that only start when Jim got sick?

DK: Even the origins of Dave Kelly Live was actually Jim, because when he started Village [Brewery], he said at a certain point, ‘I’m going to have a bar in the brewery and we’re going to do a show. You’re going to interview people and I’m going to be the dumbass at the bar saying stupid shit.’ And that was the birth of the show.

And then he got sick. And then there was the decision of okay, how do we deal with this show when the sidekick is dying? That’s a bit of a downer. And then we both said no way — this is going to be part of it, and we’re going to somehow make it fun. We both liked being goofballs. We both liked ribbing each other so it was always that, and then when he got diagnosed then it just shifted.


KL: Jim was a friend to individuals but he was also a friend to the city — was he conscious of that? Did he think of himself as a friend to the city?

DK: Jimmy, he was such a positive guy. And the only time I’d see him cranky, or frustrated was when the city acted like a victim, when the city would say ‘people don’t understand what it’s like in oil and gas’ or ‘people in Ottawa don’t get us,’ or ‘poor us.’ He just hated this notion of Calgary as a victim. He was like, ‘That’s not us. We’re the ones that get out and do things and create great villages.’ And that’s what he was so driven by.


KL: How do we live up to what Jim gave us with his friendship? How do we continue a legacy of friendship in a city?

DK: I think for me, there’s two things. One is, have real friends. So when I meet somebody, I have a real conversation and don’t hide. And when things are hard, I get out and I talk to people and I go for walks. So, I have to have real friendships and real conversations and especially when things are challenging, don’t hide — step outside.


KL: Some of Jim’s friends have set up a fund at the Calgary Foundation to continue that legacy.

DK: It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It’s for young people who see the world the way Jim did in some way. Who are building communities, who are bridging communities, who are building friendships, who are trying to make a positive difference by having real friendships and real relationships and real communities. This fund is about giving them some support to say ‘you’re on the right road, here’s some money to help you keep doing that.’ It’s to help young people who have the same mindset and heartset that Jim did to keep that tradition alive.

Donations to the Jim Button Community Builder Fund can be made online to the Calgary Foundation.

Learn more about the people and organizations moving Calgary forward with Avenue's Innovation Newsletter.

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