Bill Starr

January 26, 1926 – March 31, 2019


By Jeff Chesemore

On March 31, Young Life said goodbye to its second president, Bill Starr, who is now in the presence of his loving Savior. Among his many achievements, Starr came up with the idea of the local area committee, helped with the transition of Young Life going from a first-generation to second-generation mission, and most significantly, guided the mission through the racial unrest of the 1960s, a time that threatened to tear Young Life apart. 

Bill Starr joined the navy in 1943, served in World War II and became the youngest commissioned officer in the armed forces. After the end of the war, he soon enrolled at Wheaton College, during which time he met two people who would change the course of his life: Ruth Glittenberg (soon to be Ruth Starr) and Jim Rayburn. 

Starr came on staff in Portland, Oregon in 1949, where he recruited eight couples from eight local churches to form the first Young Life committee. The idea quickly took off across the nation. This not only gave more ownership to local areas, but also eventually freed up Rayburn from trying to raise the mission’s entire budget.

From 1956 through 1964, Starr served as the Midwest regional director over 10 states. The position helped prepare him for his most prominent (and challenging) role: president of Young Life. The moment was captured in Made For This: The Young Life Story:

To follow a charismatic leader is one challenge. To follow the founder of the mission and the only “boss” the staff had ever known, was quite another. 

Bill Starr knew this. “Of course, it’s daunting, following a man like Jim Rayburn. Here’s a man who I had the utmost admiration for; he was like a father to me. In that sense, it was a very daunting and awesome responsibility.”

Starr was only thirty-eight when the board of directors asked him to assume the role of associate executive director and general manager of Young Life. 

Along with all the cultural pressures the mission was addressing at the national and local levels, Starr also faced the much needed task of steering and stabilizing the mission. In 1964, the mission had outgrown the structure that had been in effect since 1941. 

He oversaw a new degree of organization and professionalism to the work. From these efforts he also helped start the benefits and retirement program that thousands of staff have used over the years.

Starr’s greatest achievement, however, was navigating Young Life through the sixties and seventies, sticking to his firmly held conviction, no matter the amount of opposition, that the mission must include both suburban and urban ministry.

“There was a push by many in the mission to make urban and suburban two separate organizations,” Starr said. “They thought, ‘Well, God taught us how to work with middle-class kids. Why not just do that—we know how to do that.’ That to me was a denial of the Gospel; the oneness of Christ’s body. How could we talk about the Gospel and talk separation like this? To me it was incompatible theologically. We had to fight to keep it all together; it was not right to separate it. America was becoming more pluralistic all the time. It’s one mission. It’s one Gospel.” 

Starr also made major inroads outside the mission, most notably in his passion for building Young Life’s relationship with the church. “People didn’t know how to fit us into the mainstream of the church,” Starr said. “My deep conviction was that Young Life is the church, but it needs to take its rightful place in order to make its contribution. We needed a body to which we were accountable.”

After serving as president, Starr moved into other presidential positions: overseeing the Young Life Foundation, and then outside the mission in various non-profit organizations.

Ruth preceded him in death in 1995, after 46 of years of marriage. Four years later, he married Deanna Sylte-Lucas, one of the original Sylte Sisters, a musical group from the 1950s who often played at Young Life camps.

Bill Starr was above all a man who loved Jesus and wanted kids everywhere to know and love Him too. 

Bob Reeverts, 44 year staff veteran, recognized Starr’s giftedness as a spiritual leader. “You had a natural respect for Bill. For many of us younger people coming up at that time, Bill could articulate the compassion of Christ in a new and different dimension than Jim had communicated, and that impacted our lives so much. He was another one in Young Life, who through his articulation of the Gospel, enlarged the mission’s understanding of our Lord.” 

Please join us in praying for Deanna and the entire family as they mourn their loss.