Brenda and Al Butzel have lived in their Upper East Side apartment for over 40 years. When asked what’s changed the most during their time in the city, Al gave a wry smirk and pointed out the kitchen window – you see that tall, gray building over there? With a fatherly pride, he seemed to be saying, “we watched it grow up.” While many New Yorkers find construction a nuisance, the Butzels regard slow and steady progress with respect and admiration; it’s a theme that has appeared in both their personal and professional lives.
Forty years at one New York address would be impressive enough, but it’s nothing compared to their upcoming personal triumph: 60 years of marriage. Brenda and Al met as undergraduate students at Radcliffe and Harvard, respectively. Al was courting Brenda’s roommate at the time, but she never seemed to be home when Al called! It was Brenda who answered the phone most often, and from their frequent chats, Al fell head over heels. Ever since then, “he doesn’t let me out of his sight!” Brenda teased. Without missing a beat Al added, almost singing, “And when my eyes are closed, I see only you!”
After graduation and a sojourn in Paris to try his hand at fiction writing, Al returned to Boston to attend Harvard Law. He and Brenda married in 1961; daughters Laura and Kyra followed soon thereafter. The family moved to New York City in 1965, where Al began his career as a lawyer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Al never planned to become a “a giant in local environmental law,” (according to the New York Times) advocate, or lobbyist, but one of his first cases set him on a decades-long course of action: the Storm King Mountain case. Al’s team defeated a proposal by Con Edison to build a power plant in the Hudson Highlands. The Storm King dispute would span almost 15 years and inspire the founding of Al’s own boutique environmental firm, Berle, Butzel & Kass.
Subsequent cases (see also: victories) and lobbying efforts spanned from the defeat of the Westway Highway Project to the development of Hudson River Park (Al would go on to found and chair the Hudson River Park Alliance).
Al punctuated his law career with forays into writing and even real estate before returning to law and becoming a solo practitioner. While his literary idols – Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce – may have made their legacy with works of literature, Al’s professional legacy comes to the city in the form of land. In the aforementioned 2006 profile of Al in the New York Times, he said, ”I refuse to accept that my accomplishments are transient…’That’s why I like to get parks done.” Slow and steady progress strikes again.
She spent the first chapter of their marriage raising their two daughters. When they went to college, Brenda returned to school too, earning a Masters in Social Work and beginning a second career as a Mental Health Care Professional. In searching for the right way to explain what she’s achieved in life, Brenda paused and replied, “I helped people.” Three simple words that so concisely capture 60 years of dedicated work as both a mother and social worker.
After a series of health events for both Al and Brenda, the couple’s increasing care needs became evident to both them and their daughters. A friend of the family referred them to Hebrew Home, where the conversation about building a complete care team began. In addition to their full-time healthcare aide, the Butzels were looking for ways to stay active mentally and physically and to get out of the house more, which is when companions and ComForCare were recommended.
Al said they were looking for “a person of very good cheer.” Daughter Laura added that someone artistic, young, and most importantly, funny, would be a great addition to the family. The Butzels made their preferences clear and relied heavily on ComForCare’s matchmaking abilities. Al and Brenda planned to trust their instincts: “when we like people, we really like them.” And given their success as a couple and as parents, the Butzels are clearly people who know how to build healthy relationships.
Emily joined the Butzels as a caregiver in 2019. She studied Fashion Design at Parsons before working as a Program Manager for a non-profit organization; when she pursued a career shift, she applied to be a direct care companion. Emily spends much of her time with Brenda, and the pair have become famous around the neighborhood for their frequent lunch dates. They fill their days with window shopping, trivia games, or jigsaw puzzles; Al’s Parkinson’s diagnosis prevents him from being as active as he wants to be, but he maintains a busy schedule and full course load of online classes.
Al joked, too, that Emily is a great “finder.” Emily elaborated that her “superpower” is finding anything that anybody else has lost. Their conversation on the subject revealed a larger philosophy about humanity: there are two types of people in the world – those who actually lose things and those who just temporarily misplace them. This kind of theoretical query and banter is not uncommon in the Butzel home. “My parents are always trying to understand themselves better,” Laura remarked.
During COVID lockdowns, the Butzels decided to expand their care coverage, which is when Crystal joined the team. And “we’ve been getting to know each other ever since!” she said. Crystal, a musician who studied Jazz at the New School, has always been interested in the relationship between music and memory, a curiosity that deepens her relationship with Brenda, who is experiencing increasing cognitive impairment. They often find themselves singing songs and bringing music into their daily tasks. Furthermore, Crystal’s jazz background trained her in the art of improvisation, a skill that certainly supports her work as a caregiver.
On a recent wintery morning, Emily, Brenda, and Al gathered in the kitchen, having a friendly debate about the correct way to make coffee (Al, in the minority opinion, prefers it strong). They seemed energized by the playful argument. Said Al of Emily, “she is a breath of fresh air.” They shared a sweet moment. “I accept your compliment,” Emily replied. Brenda jumped in, always seizing the opportunity for a joke – “Do you have a compliment for me?” Al thought for a moment and cheekily replied, “you’re the best wife I ever had.”