November 3, 2011 |

Prosecutor Buttram fierce competitor with a common touch

During her youth in Haines, three things attracted Ada County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Tessie Buttram to a career in law.

First was an impression of a lawyer’s office she visited as a small child. "I remember his desk was really messy, but they obviously had a lot of reverence for him, and I was like, ‘That’s cool. He is not getting yelled at for having a messy desk.’"

Second was the memory of her mother’s rough transition to independence after her parents divorced. "I don’t ever want to be like that," Buttram remembered thinking. "I want to support myself. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family."

Third was a Haines High School program that sent students to Juneau for apprenticeships. Buttram shadowed a person who worked with abused children.

"That really affected me, and I remember that I wanted to go to law school to work for child abuse victims and domestic violence victims," said the 1992 Haines High School graduate.

In her current position at the Ada County prosecutor’s office in Idaho, Buttram spends much of her time prosecuting felonies on behalf of domestic violence victims.

"They make a prosecutor work very hard. (Victims) are back and forth all the time with how they are feeling. You could be putting them at further risk, when your ultimate goal is to put them out of harm’s way. But as long as you think that you are doing the right thing, and you are trying to do the right thing, that should be your guiding light."

Buttram lives in Boise. She’s married and has three stepchildren and an infant daughter.

She attributes her ambition to her parents’ strong work ethic and pride. "I waited tables for a good part of my life. I don’t think I am better than some other waitress because I have a law degree and am a prosecutor. You got to do what you got to do and you should respect people for hard work and the effort they put out."

Her boss, prosecuting attorney Greg Bower, said Buttram’s personal traits mesh well with her job. "Tess is...something else. She is a fierce competitor (yet) she has a common touch that allows her to work with victims and witnesses who have been through very difficult times in their lives. I think much of the things that make Tess the solid prosecuting attorney that she is is because she grew up in circumstances where she learned what it is like to be in a tough spot and to have to work your way out of it."

Buttram lived in Haines from kindergarten through high school. Her father was a logger and, later, a commercial fisherman, and her mother stayed at home. She has seven siblings, including one younger brother, J.J., who was hit and killed by a car as he walked home from the Haines playing fields.

Her father was an avid hunter, skills that he taught his children.

"When I was 13 and my brother was 11, he shot and killed a squirrel. My dad made us sit and eat that squirrel, because, he said, ‘You eat what you kill.’ I said, ‘I didn’t even kill it,’ but he said, ‘That’s your little brother and you are responsible for him, too.’"

"Responsibility for family, responsibility for having a gun and using a gun ... I can’t teach my kids those same things that my dad taught me," Buttram said. She still likes to hunt but said she finds it hard to create time for it.

"People who grow up in more rural areas might be viewed as being more socially behind," she said. "(But a rural upbringing gives you) a rich and diverse background that makes you more socially sophisticated than people think," Buttram said.

She credits the Haines school system and community support for preparing her to lead a successful life. "All through school, I had very high quality teachers who really cared. When I went to Washington State University, I never felt behind."

Former teacher Terry Sharnbroich remembers Buttram as an excellent student. "Tessie was very focused, a neat young gal to be around. You pretty much knew that she was going to amount to something. She was capable of doing anything. I just figured that Tessie, when she left here, had goals in mind and she was the kind of person who would get them done."

Buttram misses the sense of safety and security she remembers from her childhood. "Everybody knew everybody. One time I was speeding and my mom knew before I got home. There was no lack of good Samaritans or people willing to stick their nose into your business."

She compared that to an experience in Idaho where a convicted sex offender very nearly got a custodial contract at her daughter’s preschool.

She is also disappointed that her stepchildren don’t have the same opportunities to participate in school-sponsored athletics. While she admits that the offerings in Haines were limited, she remembers her time on the basketball team with great pleasure.

"There was tons of support, the whole community would come out. Our team sucked, but I still loved to play." In comparison her two older stepchildren at the ages of 16 and 10 are already "too old" to take up competition.

"They wouldn’t make the team," Buttram said, without spending thousands of dollars and hours doing club sports and prestigious summer camps from a very young age.

Asked what she wishes for her children, Buttram said: "For them to never use drugs (or) abuse drugs. I see so much of that in my field and how that brings people down. A good majority of the crimes are substance use or abuse related, even if that is not the substance of the charge.  I see people doing horrible things either because they are high or are seeking money to get high.  People from all walks of life are addicts. People make a mess of their lives."  

Back in high school, Buttram aspired to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice. She said she now views judges as having isolated jobs.

"My career goals vary from day to day. Most days I feel like I could do this forever, but some days I wake up and say, ‘Dang, this is like (the movie) ‘Groundhog Day.’ I like feeling like what I do makes a difference, feeling like I am doing the right thing."

Buttram looks forward to bringing her children to visit Haines some day, to see the place where their mom grew up. "I have taken two or three people back to Haines and they all say it’s the most beautiful place they have ever seen in their lives."