By Sabina Mollot
John “Butch” Purcell, a longtime resident of Stuyvesant Town affectionately known to some as the “mayor of Stuyvesant Town,” is getting ready to retire from a career in drug abuse counseling.
In May, Purcell, was one of several dozen employees of Beth Israel to be honored in a low-key, midday ceremony for those who’d worked at the hospital for 20 years, 25 years, 30 years or even longer. In the case of Purcell and just two others at the ceremony, it was actually a recognition of 45 years of service in the methadone treatment program. The other two being honored were Martin Berger, MD, and Marie Marciano, an administrator of the methadone program.
Purcell, who earned his “mayor” nickname over the years for somehow managing to get to know countless neighbors in Stuy Town, where his was only the fifth black family to move in during the 1960s, as well as becoming just as well-recognized in the Beth Israel community and through his work counseling NBA players, said he wasn’t sure what he’s going to do with his free time yet. He plans to retire this month.
Meanwhile, during the May 3 ceremony celebrating Purcell’s day job, fellow honoree Marciano had some kind words for her coworker. “If you want the official word on local politics, sports, music or the best dog park on the Lower East Side, then you’ve got to hang with John Butch the Mayor of Stuyvesant Town Purcell,” she said.
She went on to say he always knew how to promote a positive image of the methadone treatment program and deal with patients “with the style of a seasoned politician.”
Following the ceremony, Purcell received a bouquet and a few gifts from the hospital and coworkers (including a framed photo of him with his prized yorkie mastiff mix pooch, Ginger).
He also spoke with T&V about the steps that led to his career in drug counseling and his unofficial mayoral status.
Purcell, the first person in his family to graduate from college, began counseling at Beth Israel’s then-new methadone program in 1967, shortly after graduating. He had considered becoming a pro basketball player, but ended up taking a very different path. Before moving on to counseling, Purcell also worked briefly for Stuyvesant Town’s recreation department in 1965. As for being one of the first black residents in the complex, Purcell said it wasn’t weird. Because, he explained, “I knew everybody.”
He soon moved on though to Beth Israel, noting how his family had a history of social service work. His mother worked for the V.A., and his father, a veteran who died when Purcell was 10, had worked as a custodial engineer for the Pentagon. His aunt was a social worker and his uncle worked for the Parks Department. Another uncle was a housing cop.
It was through Beth Israel that Purcell met his wife Mary who’s been married to him for 45 years. The couple has one grown son, John Purcell IV.
It’s difficult to say how the “mayor” nickname originated, though it seemed to stick after coworker Patty Juliana, PhD, started calling him that after noticing that everyone on the street seemed to know Purcell when they walked around Harlem, between two of Beth Israel’s facilities.
“What should have been a short walk took a half an hour because he knew everyone,” she said. The same is true when he walks his dog on First Avenue. “And it’s not because the dog’s legs are only four inches long.”
Late Stuyvesant Town community activist Granville Leo Stevens also used to refer to Purcell as the mayor, cementing that as his nickname at home too.
Purcell also made a name for himself in the NBA, when he counseled between 20 and 30 players from 1981 to 1983. He also continued counseling pro basketball players on and off over the years as well as those in many other professions at Beth Israel.
There have also been a number of neighbors in Stuy Town he’s counseled, both kids and adults, over the years. The drug problems in the complex, he noted, are more prevalent than most people would like to believe.
However, things were especially bad in Harlem and the South Bronx when he first got into the field and at that time, methadone treatment wasn’t seen as the solution for the heroin epidemic.
“It was looked at as black genocide,” recalled Purcell, “switching one drug for another.”
Still, over the decades, Purcell said there have been many success stories.
“I’ve seen grandchildren of my patients finish college and doing really well,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of addicts really turn their lives around.”
But, he added, “Mostly it’s up to them. I’m like hamburger helper. The best success stories are the patients who graduate to a point where we hire them to be counselors. That touches my heart.”
Additionally, about three years ago, Purcell also started representing athletes as a sports agent in the firm Waldon & Associates, and said he may start to focus more on that.
Another plan is to try to get more acting work, something he got into several years ago through a neighbor, assistant director Sean Furguson, who got him his first job as an extra. Since then, Purcell has had multiple TV appearances on shows like “Third Watch” and “Law & Order.” This led to an extra role in the film, “Something’s Gotta Give.” On “Third Watch,” he had larger roles playing characters like a bodega owner and a Santeria dancer. In another, particularly challenging episode, a 70-yard sprint he had to run was filmed in 17 different takes, which he definitely felt in his knees later.
Therefore, yet another retirement plan is just to relax, with Purcell saying he’d give a report on how that’s going “when I don’t have to get up.”