Bart Starr gave a lifetime of glorious football memories to Green Bay fans. As the on-field general during the Vince Lombardi dynasty, Starr’s Packers won five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls.Even outside of Green Bay, Starr’s exploits were renowned. There was his spearing dive over the goal line to win the famously frosty NFL Championship game of 1967 against Dallas, known, of course, as the ‘Ice Bowl.’ There were his two MVP trophies awarded for his back-to-back brilliance in Super Bowls I and II (1966-67), and the MVP awarded for his outstanding 1966 regular season. Starr remains a legend.But in 1965, during the height of his Hall of Fame career, Starr began helping give troubled young men the gift of a better life through the Rawhide Boys Ranch.John and Jan Gillespie are the brainchildren of Rawhide. The couple met in the second grade at the same one-room school house north of Appleton, Wisconsin, that his father and grandfather had attended. They married in 1947. After serving as a captain in a U.S. Army Combat Engineer Company, John ran a successful architectural business.In the early 1960s, a 13-year-old boy approached the couple one day after church. The boy expressed some difficulties he was having in his home life and asked if he could visit the Gillespies the following weekend. When the boy showed up with a full suitcase and asked if his ‘visit’ could be more long-term, the Gillespies realized they needed to get further involved.From that day, the couple felt a spiritual calling to create a facility for troubled boys to rehabilitate, educate and share their faith in God. But their home would not be suitable. They needed a larger location.John had been working on a project in New London, Wisconsin, about an hour outside of Green Bay. The property had a large home and over 700 acres of land nearby the Wolf River. It was the perfect place to set up shop for their dream. The problem was funding the launch as the property’s price was $60,000.
Enter Bart Starr.In 1965, Starr was enjoying what would be the first of three consecutive championship seasons (1965-67). John Gillespie, a Packers’ fan, felt that an association with a figure as famous as Starr would be just what the project would need to get underway.Although it defies modern-day logic, contacting one of the highest-profile players of that day was as easy as picking up the local White Pages.”It’s so hard to imagine that in today’s day and age you could contact a superstar that easily,” relates Scott Sawinski, Public Relations Coordinator for Rawhide, Inc. “But Mr. Gillespie simply opened up the Green Bay phone book and called the Starr residence. As the story goes, a man answered the phone and John asked, “Is Mr. Starr there.” And the man on the other end said, “There is no Mr. Starr here, only Bart.” So John pushed ahead, “Well can I speak with Bart please.” And the gentleman said, “You are.”Forever the epitome of humility, Starr listened to Gillespie’s pitch, and invited John and Jan for dinner that very same night. It took about ten minutes in person for Bart and his wife, Cherry, to come on board. The Gillespies and Starrs shared a similar vision of helping lost young men.”John and Jan did a marvelous job of telling us what their hopes and dreams were, and my wife and I were just overwhelmed by it,” Starr told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I don’t think that we as adults can do anything more important than helping youngsters in need.”With the help of Bart and Cherry Starr, the Gillespies purchased the property and Rawhide was officially – and physically – born.The facility has been called, at least a temporary, home to thousands of men aged eight-to-17 since the doors first opened. Most of the admissions are court-ordered for youths that may have had brushes with the law or have experienced parental problems. The boys remain at the facility for a varying length of time that could be months or even years.The Rawhide mission statement is simple: “Being dependent on God, we inspire and equip at-risk teenage boys to become responsible young men through family-centered care, treatment and education.”The site in New London provides year-round schooling with accredited teachers in a private-school setting at the Starr Academy where academic and vocational classes are taught. Much of the therapy and counseling is treatment based. The youths live in a home setting with live-in house parents which gives the kids, “A family atmosphere they lack and need,” according to Sawinski.In its first 46 years, Rawhide Boys Ranch grew from one youth home to seven. Sawinski shared one of literally thousands of success stories. An active alumni named Bee had lost his way. With little or difficult parental guidance, he formed a ‘family bond’ with a gang in Appleton. He was sent to Rawhide where he embraced the family structure and moral teachings. Today, he is a youth pastor.Bart and Cherry Starr remain a key element in the on-going success of Rawhide, which has expanded its full-time live-in rehabilitation with several outpatient facilities to provide counseling for families using the Rawhide principles.Despite his forever escalating status as a football superstar and Green Bay icon, Starr has not wavered in his faith in what Rawhide can do to help troubled youths.
In a famous act of generosity, Starr created a raffle for the fiery red Corvette Stingray convertible he was given for being named Super Bowl II’s MVP. The proceeds from the raffle were designed to help further fund Rawhide a couple years after its inception.Since raffles were illegal in Wisconsin at that time, Rawhide had to get a special dispensation from then-Governor Warren P. Knowles. With tickets priced at $1 – a Corvette Stingray convertible at that time sold for about $4,300 – the raffle raised roughly $40,000, as Sawinski recalls, with all the monies going toward Rawhide. (Conflicting, unsubstantiated sources say the raffle generated closer to $65,000).The Starrs later established an endowment fund in memory of their late son Bret to help the young men who have gone through the program have access to funds after they leave Rawhide. Proceeds from Bart Starr’s autographs and other donations continue to build this fund today to help at-risk young men transition back into the community and lead productive lives.The Starrs also continue to donate countless hours sharing the Rawhide story, helping raise funds, visiting with the boys and producing dozens of public service announcements for radio and TV.”I’m thrilled and honored to have been a member of the Green Bay Packers,” Starr told the LA Times in 2010. “But on another plateau is the Rawhide Boys Ranch because of what it has meant…to so many youngsters who need this type of facility to change, grow, mature and expand their lives.”John and Jan Gillespie continue to serve as spokespersons for Rawhide and live in Appleton, Wisconsin.