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Kate Butler Wickham, 97, Buffalo philanthropist, granddaughter of News founder

Jan. 31, 1921 – Nov. 17, 2018

Kate Butler Wickham, granddaughter of Edward H. Butler, founder of The Buffalo Evening News, was recognized for her elegance.

“She was one of the last grand dames of her era,” said her daughter-in-law, Pamela Righter, adding that heads would turn when she walked into a restaurant.

When she stepped onto Fifth Avenue in high heels from her condominium in Manhattan, tourists would snap photos of her, thinking she was a celebrity, her son, Edward B. Righter, noted.

While she lived the latter part of her life in New York City, she spent decades in Buffalo, where she served as chair of the Buffalo State College Council and was a member of the city Planning Board.

Asked by an interviewer if she had a muse, jewelry designer Heidi Gardner replied: “My grandmother, Kate Wickham. She is flawless and has been for decades. In her youth, she was a muse to many designers and has been hostess to all types of impressive guests, including royalty. My grandmother is my ultimate hero. Her timeless class and style never fails to amaze and inspire me.”

She died Nov. 17 at her home in New York City. She was 97.

Born in Manhattan, she attended elementary school in Buffalo and Paris, France, where her parents had an apartment.

In 1935, she was enrolled in St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Va. She transferred to Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., in 1936 and completed studies at Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland from 1938 to 1940.

She took flying lessons as a teen and soloed in a plane at the age of 17.

In a 1992 interview in The Buffalo News, she recalled meeting international dignitaries who came to visit her family's home on Delaware Avenue when she was a young girl.

"My father," she said, "lived much as his father lived before him, in a very romantic time, surrounded by wealth and extraordinary comforts that we all took for granted then, but now look back on as being almost hard to believe."

Her memories included being "wide-eyed and petrified" meeting a crown prince and other Swedish royalty in 1927.

"In those days," she recalled, "it seemed that no one of any distinction would pass through this area without visiting my father and staying at our home."

A graceful dancer, she performed in an Arthur Murray dancing exhibition in Cleveland.

Returning to Buffalo, she met James H. Righter, an Annapolis graduate stationed in Buffalo during World War II in the office of the inspector of naval material, and they were married in 1943. He joined The News in 1946.

Upon the death of her father in 1956, he became publisher.

She was the last member of the Butler family to be involved in the management of the newspaper — serving as vice chairman of the board of The News from 1976 to 1986.

She was active in numerous civic, cultural and educational organizations, beginning in 1943, when she became a member of the Junior Board at Buffalo General Hospital and the Junior League of Buffalo.

Her primary interest was Buffalo State College.

She was appointed to the Buffalo State College Council in 1954 and served as its chairman from 1959 to 1980. She was a member of the board of directors of the Buffalo State College Foundation from 1980 to 1983 and was instrumental in many projects, including the college’s Edward H. Butler Library.

The college presented her with a President’s Distinguished Service Award at commencement in 1981.

She was a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Society through 1983, a board member of its Women’s Committee from 1954 to 1956 and chaired the annual Philharmonic Ball in 1957. She received the orchestra’s Woman of the Year Award in 1962.

At Buffalo General, she was a Junior Board member for 14 years and chaired its philanthropic Snow Ball in 1955. She was a board member at Buffalo Children’s Hospital from 1952 to 1955.

She served on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Committee for International Official Visitors from 1967 to 1973, providing hospitality for dignitaries from around the world, and was a member of the Buffalo City Planning Board from 1972 to 1974.

When the Edward H. Butler Foundation was established in 1974, she was its chairman.

She was a member of the Garret Club, the Country Club of Buffalo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Artpark and Company, the Landmark Society of Buffalo and Erie County and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

In 1973, she married her second husband, Bruce E. Willis, a newsprint company executive, in her mother’s mansion on Delaware Avenue at North Street. They resided in New York City and Osprey, Fla.

In New York, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, which her parents and grandparents had supported, and served on the hospital’s board of trustees from 1983 to 2005. She was a member of its Development Committee from 1976 to 2005 and active in many fundraising galas. She was a founding member of the hospital’s Associate Trustees.

She was recognized by the hospital for her volunteer service and philanthropy at a special program in 2010.

She was a member of the board of trustees of the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club in New York and a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the French Heritage Society and the Foreign Policy Association.

In Sarasota, Fla., she helped establish an interior design firm, Knowles-Wallis Interiors, and was vice president from 1987 to 1999. She was a life member of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Asolo State Theatre and a member of Media Roundtable in Sarasota, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

She was a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames, the National Institute of Social Sciences and the Daughters of the Cincinnati, an organization of women descendants of officers in George Washington’s army and navy.

Following the death of her second husband in 1997, she married Dr. Robert D. Wickham, a prominent New York City urologist whom she met while serving on a committee at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. He died in 2013.

She traveled extensively in the United States and abroad with her parents and her first husband for newspaper conferences, and with her second husband, who was in charge of overseas sales of newsprint.

Her daughter, Kate Righter Gardner, died in 2016.

In addition to her son, survivors include six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 3 at First Presbyterian Church, 1 Symphony Circle.

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