John ‘Butch’ Purcell, mayor of Stuy Town, dies at 74

Residents left flowers at the entrance of Playground 9 in Stuyvesant Town this week following the news that John “Butch” Purcell, for whom the playground had recently been renamed, had died on Sunday. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

John “Butch” Purcell, known to many in the community as the mayor of Stuyvesant Town, passed away on Sunday night at age 74. He is survived by his wife, Mary, and their son, John Purcell Jr.

Purcell earned his mayor nickname from being one of the first black families that moved into Stuyvesant Town in the 1960s, and he celebrated his 50th year in the community in 2018.

Purcell played basketball throughout his life and although he never went pro himself, he started coaching at 27. He coached athletes at Harlem’s Rucker Park tournaments from 1972 to 1992, as well as for the New York Pro Basketball League, and by his own estimate, coached more than 75 NBA players, including Julius Erving. He was honored by the Brooklyn USA Athletic Association for his coaching career in 2017.

In addition to coaching, Purcell also worked for more than 40 years in drug counseling at Beth Israel Medical Center, where he started working in 1967 for the hospital’s methadone treatment program. Purcell worked directly for the NBA during the 1980s as well, counseling players, and continued to counsel players and others until he retired in 2013.

After he retired, he got into acting and appeared as an extra on a number of television shows, such as “Law & Order,” “Third Watch” and “The Last O.G.” He also appeared in a Fannie Mae commercial shot in Stuyvesant Town, giving the perspective of a resident.

Numerous Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village residents have shared their condolences and memories about Purcell in various Facebook groups for the community, with many posting about the support that he provided throughout the years to friends, neighbors and fellow ball-players.

Residents and friends left flowers at the entrance to Playground 9, which was renamed in honor of Purcell last fall, since the news of his passing made its way through the community at the beginning of the week but were removed last Wednesday morning at the request of his family.

Stuy Town resident Bill Oddo, a member of the Stuy Town golf club, said that Purcell was always incredibly supportive to him and the community. He noted that even though Purcell didn’t play golf himself, he helped the neighborhood golf club get started and gave it his seal of approval, and Oddo said that Purcell also called his wife Elaine when her father passed away to express his sympathy.

“We are all devastated beyond belief,” Oddo said. “Butch was this community. He represented the heart and soul of Stuy Town. [StuyTown general manager] Rick Hayduk to recognize and memorialize Butch early in his leadership [by renaming Playground 9] is just one of many measures of Butch’s impact on this community. Sitting on that bench, you could not pass by Butch without a sincere and friendly greeting from him.”

Purcell at the Playground 9 dedication last September (Photo by Andy Cavallaro)

Former Assemblymember Steven Sanders, a neighbor of Purcell’s in Stuyvesant Town for almost 18 years, wrote a tribute to Purcell last September in this newspaper prior to the dedication of Playground 9, highlighting his importance to the community and the help that he provided for young people throughout the years. Sanders expressed his shock and sadness about Purcell’s passing.

“His smile was contagious his gregarious personality was a joy for all,” Sanders said. “His friendship and his willingness to help anybody in need were always there at the ready. He was a special human being and the best of us all.”

Hayduk also expressed his sadness about the news.

“The Stuyvesant Town community is in mourning on the passing of a great human being,” Hayduk said. “His legacy will live on in the thousands of people whose lives changed because of knowing Butch.”

There will be a memorial service for Purcell at Immaculate Conception Church, 414 East 14th Street, on Friday, January 17 at 10:30 a.m.

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