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Our Friend Jim

: Jim Button on work, family and the greatest adventure he’s ever faced

Jim Button. Photo by EWAN PHOTO VIDEO.

Exceptional people come in all shapes and sizes. Old, young, male, female, teacher, parent, friend, colleague – it’s not so much who they are, but what they do that makes them so great. Indispensable to those around them, they leave lasting effects wherever they go, whatever they do.

One such exceptional Calgarian is Jim Button. A man with several different hats, Button is many things to many people: friend, business partner, husband, father, leader, collaborator, teammate, entertainer. For over 20 years, he has helped build the community of Calgary – one business, one event and one organization at a time.

“My philosophy has always been that if you just keep giving, and you don’t really care what the get is, you get back twice as much as you could ever possibly have imagined,” Button says earnestly. “Whatever you give out, you always get more back.”

And give out, he certainly has. Whether it’s by donating 10 per cent of the bottom line of Village Brewery (which he co-founded in 2010) to city causes, the creation of Circle (a travelling food, beer and music carnival), coaching his kids’ soccer teams, serving as Dave Kelly’s “Ed McMahon” during the Dave Kelly Live shows, or running SuperJocks – a sports-based business networking group with over 90 participants for 25 years – Button’s always doing something for others.

Scaling back the giving is a difficult thing for Button to do, but something he’s coming to terms with these days. This is because he has cancer. Originally diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) in the spring of 2014, Button’s kidney was removed in July of the same year in hopes of eradicating the “rat bastard.” A routine monthly checkup in April 2016 revealed the cancer had returned, this time in his lungs. After being told he had a year or two to live, Button began immunotherapy drugs. He also started a blog – gatherwithjim.com – to document his cancer journey.

“There’s another growth in my abdomen,” he reveals matter-of-factly, just home from having spent a week at the hospital in early December 2017 for pancreatitis. “So I’ve got it in the lungs, the pancreas, the adrenal gland and now somewhere in the abdomen.” He started a new immunotherapy drug just before Christmas, his outlook unfailingly positive. “I’m onto the next adventure.”

Starkly honest, heart-wrenching and funny, Button’s blog documents his cancer journey. “It’s now driving my purpose,” he says. “Because of the blog I have a lot of people who want to talk to me about their cancer.” Talking about cancer, he laments, is something people normally don’t want to do. “When I’m at the hospital, and I’m walking down the hallway in my gown with my IV bag, nobody looks at me; everybody averts their eyes. It’s just what we do in our society.”

His blog is meant to put cancer out in the open. “I’m trying, in whatever small way I can, to help change people’s perception of cancer, or sickness, or death, and how to cope with it.” Button’s cancer is also part of his Dave Kelly Live performances (all unscripted), included in his “Tub Talks” (chats he and Kelly have in the bath together) and the impetus for his Bucket List – a list of things he’s accomplishing, some with the help of Kelly, including getting massive (fake) back tattoos. “Let’s just talk about it; let’s have it out. Because you’ll be way happier if you do.”

Mindfulness and being in the present are also helping Button navigate the journey. This was sparked by a text from friend Avnish Mehta, hours after he received the news that the cancer had metastasized in his lungs, in which Mehta already knew (unbeknownst to Button or his oncologist) of the cancer’s return. “That text changed it all,” Button says. “I’ve always been very spiritual, always thought things aren’t coincidences, always seeing connections not things. And once I understood that, all of a sudden I became more mindful.”

He and his wife, Tracey, took a mindfulness course at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, practice meditation regularly and began qigong in January. “The more you say something, the more you think about it, the more likely it is to be true,” he says of believing he is cancer-free. “My philosophy isn’t that I’m dying; my philosophy is that I’m living.”

Button doesn’t just live, he’s lives large. A skilled multitasker, he’s been instrumental in the city for years. Originally from Ontario, he drove to Calgary in 1993 in hopes of starting a business. He and his oldest brother, Hal, (he is the third eldest of four brothers) started a financial planning company. “Hal was in the insurance business and it was his idea – and financial planning was not a thing back then,” he recalls. “We hired 21 people and were the largest independent financial planning company in Calgary.” Button ran the marketing and sales functions.

“I got bored with it,” he chuckles, “so I left. And I saw that nobody was doing events from a marketing perspective. I thought ‘the one-to-one engagement – the experience stuff – is a really powerful marketing tool, why aren’t people doing it?’” In 1997, he and Dave Howard started The Event Group (TEG).

He stayed at TEG for seven years, helping to build it into one of Canada’s most successful strategic event management and concert production companies. In 2004, he sold his shares in TEG and joined Arlene Dickinson at Venture Communications. One of his clients he had brought to Venture – Big Rock Brewery – eventually offered him a position as vice president. He joined the brewery in May 2007 and departed less than three years later after a disagreement with leadership on the direction of the company.

He wasn’t jobless for long though. “I was asked to leave on a Tuesday,” he recalls, “and I got three really good job opportunities that same week.” These included co-founder of Village Brewery and business development at Evans Hunt, a leading Calgary digital communications agency. Button remains a key player at both companies today.

“At the time I was on nine volunteer boards, coaching both kids in soccer and running SuperJocks,” he adds. “I was also playing soccer and was a husband and a father.”

How did he do it all? “Everybody always asks that, and I’ve never in my life had a complete answer,” he says. “It’s pretty fluid. They all became my life – they all became Jim. I would use my Evans Hunt email for Village stuff, and vice versa. I remember being very nervous about that at first but now I do it all the time. Now who I am is not necessarily any of the companies, I’m just Jim.”

Since opening in January 2011 – the first new brewery in the province in 15 years – Village has evolved as a key part of the city’s brewing industry. Button humbly acknowledges the success. “We got lucky. Being first meant a lot; the market was starving for it. And because we knew everybody in the industry from our past, the fact that the beer tasted good was a bonus to them, because everybody was excited to have the new beer and to be able to support their friends.”

Village’s purpose was also very well received. “We didn’t want it to be just about beer,” Button explains. “We all knew that beer has a currency and is a social lubricant, and that we could use beer to do good. That was the consistent desire amongst partners and beer barons.” To this end, the partners committed to giving away 10 per cent of their bottom line every year. “It’s always been really easy to make decisions about giving, because we had a mandate of 10 per cent,” he explains. “When you look at any company, 10 per cent is a pretty big number. But because it was set from the beginning it never seemed huge.”

While Village was busy growing, so too was Evans Hunt. “We’re at 90 employees now,” Button says proudly. “We started with four and no office. We punch way above our belt.”

With apparent time to spare, Button partnered with James Boettcher of YYCFoodTrucks and Baran Faber of BassBus to create Circle four years ago – his answer to the inability of the Village beer truck to freely sell beer throughout the city the same way other food trucks operate. The real purpose, however, is to show Calgarians that there is so much to do in the city. “People that have lived here a long time or in the suburbs feel it’s a boring town,” he says, “and I know that the actual city has changed from what people still see it as 50 years ago – when one in 350 people was a visible minority, whereas today it’s one in four, soon to be two in five. I am trying to get people to realize our city has actually changed.” Last year’s event, held at Currie Park, drew over 7,000 people and featured three stages with 22 artists, three Village bars, 13 food trucks, a kids’ stage, circus performers and much more.

Two years ago he also co-created Best of Calgary. “It came about when we had our latest oil price challenge, and everybody was talking in negative terms about Calgary,” he explains. “But a group of us were saying no – most of the companies I know and work with are doing exceptionally well. So why are we not celebrating all the great?”

Best of Calgary holds an annual survey and then creates video and other digital content based on the survey results. It also holds a conference, interactive labs and a party to celebrate all of the “best” businesses and provide a forum to discuss things that could make the city better.

The hard part these days, Button admits, is spending more time on himself than on others. “I’ve always been outward and I have a hard time accepting – I’m way better at giving. But I think I need to get into an accepting time, and focus inwards a bit. I’m starting to evaluate at what level I need to be engaged with [work and other activities], as opposed to at what level I need to be engaged with Jim and the Button family.”

His wife, Tracey – the first person he met when he moved to Calgary – is his partner, mentor and is providing him with his strength during this most recent journey. His son, Jack, is at the University of Western Ontario taking computer science and his daughter, Amanda, is in Grade 11. “Other than being told I won’t see my kids grow up, I’d be totally cool with it,” he reflects. “I’ve lived more in my life than most deserve to live. I’ve lived an absolutely full, explorative, good life. I could tell you all sorts of trouble I’ve gotten into, and all sorts of adventures – my life is full in so many ways.”

His hopes for a legacy? “My kids for sure,” he says, “but also that Jim made friends. And he made friends for friends. I want my kids – they’ve watched Tracey and I be a good partnership for 20 years – to know that if you treat people nicely and do good it comes washing back in waves, way more than you ever gave out. It’s amazing what comes back, especially when shit goes sideways.”