1913 — Albion, Michigan
Floyd Elliot Starr was born May 1, 1883 to Marshall and Mary Root Starr in Decatur, Michigan. By the time young Floyd was enrolled in elementary school his family had inherited his grandmother Root’s farm near Marshall, Michigan where young Floyd completed his schooling. Once, when family friends Dr. and Mrs. John Harvey Kellogg were visiting, nine year old Floyd overhead the mention of adoption. Later, quizzing his mother as to what “adoption” meant, Floyd announced that when he was grown-up he was going to buy a farm and adopt 50 boys. Excelling in high school forensics and debate, Floyd was hired by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union following graduation to travel across the United States making impassioned speeches on the evils of alcohol and smoking. He later took a job with the physical culturist Bernarr MacFadden as his secretary. The position entailed traveling, arranging exhibitions, advertising and in general, managing the career of MacFadden. The skills honed during these years would serve him well in his future undertakings.
Returning to Marshall in 1906 he matriculated at nearby Albion College where, in a sociology class, he made the brash assertion that “there is no such thing as a bad boy.” A member and later national president of Delta Tau Delta fraternity, Floyd Starr graduated with an A.B. degree in 1910. Shortly after graduation he married his college sweetheart Harriet Armstrong. The newlyweds took a position at a settlement house in St. Louis and later an Assistant Director position lured Floyd to the Beulah Home for Boys in Boyne City, Michigan. After taking the position the Director was involved in a scandal and Floyd became the de facto Director. Beulah soon closed and 50 boys were left needing a home. Starr would make a decision that day that would change the face of American social work forever.
In 1913, with the help of his father and the aid of a legacy left by an Aunt, Floyd Starr purchased a 40 acre farm on the shores of Montcalm Lake just west of Albion, Michigan. The house had burned leaving a bare foundation, so Floyd and his first two homeless boys slept in the old barn while a cottage was constructed. The cottage was called “Gladsome” because that was how Starr felt about the beginning of his life’s work. Around the kitchen table in that cottage Starr would pen the famous Starr Commonwealth Creed, a statement of his beliefs about the fundamental nature of boys and a revolutionary approach to the treatment of so-called “badness.”
The crackpot idea of Starr Commonwealth, a character rebuilding institution built on love not bars, began to take shape and earn the respect of judges and juvenile authorities across the State of Michigan. Starr himself was a tireless advocate for boys and would spend the next 54 years at the helm of an ever-burgeoning institution. As news of the success of Starr Commonwealth spread it began to attract many famous celebrities. Among the famous guests at Starr were Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Madame Pandit, George Washington Carver, Carl Sandburg, Admiral Byrd, Jesse Owens, Helen Keller, Roy Rogers, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Muhhamad Ali, Joan Crawford, Diego Rivera, Art Linkletter, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Ruth Bryan Rohde, Joy Adamson, Dorothy Maynor, Henry Winkler, Marlee Matlin and many, many other famous and talented personalities.
In the 1950's Floyd Starr recognized that a significant number of his new charges were coming from Ohio. In response, and with the help of one of his field secretaries, arrangements were made to purchase a property west of Van Wert, Ohio known as "Auglaise Gardens." The property belonged to Mr. Harry Beckmann the "Peony King of the Midwest." The estate featured a handsome gatehouse and a magnificent Old English house later partially converted to a chapel. As the realization of a long-held dream, Floyd Starr named a former Starr boy Gordon Langley as the first director of the Ohio branch of Starr Commonwealth.
Due to advancing age and near-total deafness, Floyd Starr retired as President Emeritus of Starr Commonwealth in 1967 at the age of 84. He continued to live on at his home, Candler Hall, on the Albion Campus where he engaged with young people and offered advice to his successor and Board of Directors. He died in 1980 at the age of 97 and is buried above the Great Cross on a hill behind the Chapel-in-the-Woods at Starr Commonwealth, Albion, Michigan. The campus at Albion that he conceived with the help of talented landscape architects and building designers and the thousands of trees, bulbs and grasses that he and his early boys planted have culminated in a spot of rare beauty in America. So striking is the setting and the scope of Starr's work at Albion that the campus has been named a Michigan State historic site. His dictum "beauty is a silent teacher" pervades the 350 acres. In addition to the Albion campus, Starr operates campuses in Battle Creek, Detroit, Van Wert and Columbus, Ohio.
Floyd Starr is remembered today as the man who insisted that “there is no such thing as a bad boy.” His treatment philosophy based upon love, respect and the inherent goodness of mankind is still studied today and his crackpot school, Starr Commonwealth, now over 100 years old, is flourishing and expanding, providing help and healing to over 6,000 children and families each year.