FSB, aka B.I.S.
RALPH C. STARKEY, Last Superintendent of Ohio’s Fairfield School for Boys, died January 24, 2010.
September 26, 2007 I had the privilege to sit in the home of Ralph C. Starkey as he sat reminiscing about the years he spent at the Fairfield School for Boys in the hills and ravines six miles south of Lancaster, Ohio. If anyone ever talked to Ralph Starkey and did not catch his excitement about trying to get boys back on track, they were not paying attention. January 24, 2010, Ralph Starkey passed away and his passing presented an opportunity to write “one more chapter” about the most successful Boys Industrial School in the United States, bar none. The B.I.S. Started in 1856 under the name, Ohio Reform School (Reform School & Farm); 1884 was renamed the Boys Industrial School; 1964 it became Fairfield School for Boys. The school closed in 1979 with Mr. Starkey being the last superintendent. The various name changes were merely semantics in action involving nuances about the principles and purposes of the school as viewed by various administrations and societal input.
Ralph Starkey was born in Circleville, Ohio, in the same town he was living when I interviewed him in the early days of our preparation and research to write a history of the Boys Industrial School (later known as Fairfield School for Boys, and most recently known as Southern Correctional Institution).
The small town of Circleville, nestled in the fields of Pickaway County, has some claims to fame but Ralph C. Starkey’s name might just glow a tad brighter than entertainer Ted Lewis who, while holding his clarinet, would ask, “Is Everybody Happy?” Strange as it may seem this could have easily been one of Starkey’s queries to those delinquent boys of the State of Ohio when they were sent to The Hill in a genuine detainment from the streets of crime.
After leaving Circleville, Ralph C. Starkey became known as #74, Tackle, with the New York Giants — unique with his abilities, he was recruited to come to Lancaster and tackle major problems at FSB. “Something was going on” at FSB in Lancaster and it needed fixed. Ralph did not come right from the locker room or football field because he had been working with the State of Ohio Youth Commission for several years and was in Zanesville when he was asked to come to Lancaster.
There were many icons who sat in the chair of superintendency of that state institution that began in the 19th century by Charles Gustave Reemelin and a few others who saw the need to make a place where delinquent or truant boys could be rehabilitated and sent back home with new goals in life. Ralph Starkey may not have really asked the boys, “Is Everybody Happy?” but many feel he came to that school to try to make every boy leave there with a better outlook on life. Happiness may have been a by-product after all.
Ralph Starkey told me about being involved with Rotary and other organizations, and knowing some very influential people and when it was announced that the school was being shut down the whole town was up in arms. They were ready to take this to the governor. Representative Don Maddux even got involved. Central Office (of the state’s machinery) called Starkey into the office and informed him that this was a done deal and to back off. Only a short time later it was made public the future of FSB would become history and The Hill would no longer vibrate with youthful boys but become a prison for hardened criminals. (A long way from its founder’s dreams or hopes.)
Supt. Starkey had twenty vocational programs going on as well as a full academic high school. No one had time to “lay around on their bunks” as prisoners do in the SCI – they were programmed for those boys. All the kids were involved in either a vocational program or an academic program. The BIS was turning out sixteen hundred and we put almost two thousand kids through the program a year which was half of what the other eight institutions in Ohio did in a year. Mohican Youth Center, Cuyahoga school for boys, and other related “schools”.The BIS, and later, FSB, had an outstanding work ethic.
There were five unions on the campus of Fairfield School for Boys. Each major labor force was represented and the teachers had a union. Starkey did not have any problems with unions–he was always willing to listen to them. All the vocational trades people for carpentry, masonry and horticulture, etc., were unionized as well.
The livestock program had ceased when he got there. Superintendent Starkey knew that if he kept the kids sharp looking, gave them three good meals and a snack at night he had 75% of his problems covered. He was in his office every morning at 6:00. He knew that former superintendents were never in their office until 9:00 in the morning. He would eat with the staff or the kids instead of living in the official superintendent’s mansion (which had not be used as such for some time). Former superintendents seemed reluctant to go out where the students were and he got to know the students as well as the staff. On one occasion Superintendent Starkey went to a dormitory one night around 2:00 a.m.. He wanted to get in touch with the staff and become acquainted – it was the first time they had seen a superintendent in the middle of the night.
Every Friday morning at 8:00 he had an appointment with all the new kids in FSB. There would be as high as 50-60 new boys come in every Friday. He told them what he would tolerate: “no hands on anyone, don’t even think about putting your hands on anyone or starting a fight”. He expected them to keep themselves absolutely neat and clean at all times and he said, “We will provide clean clothes for you to make sure this happens.”. Then he told them, “If you want to go home then this is what you will have to do.” He wanted them to know FSB was going to do everything they could to make it possible for them to go home as soon as they could, and said, “I don’t want to see you again.” He would then approach each and every boy asking him if they would make the same commitment to him. He even assured them that he would not allow any parole officer to interfere with any boy’s schedule to go home as soon as he could. Starkey even had a recording made of these meetings and it was given to the staff so they would know what he had told the boys. Every staff member knew exactly what the Superintendent had told these boys.
As a professional who had worked with delinquent boys, Mr. Starkey knew that most of these kids had never been a winner. The power of positive thinking has always worked and these boys needed to feel good about themselves. The Fairfield School for Boys had a program with four levels. Starkey worked up a system of cards that were punched to keep track of the individual boys – the conduct, cooperation, or whatever and the boys turned in their punched cards regularly. The cards became a part of the permanent record. If the kids got to certain levels they got to wear a different shirt with colored borders signifying what level they were on. The boys were proud of those shirts and would holler across the yard telling Mr. Starkey about their new shirts. The boys had “TIGER TOUGH” buckles, in the background of that logo was the level color they had achieved. “How you boys doing?” Starkey would ask, and they replied, “Mr. Starkey, we’re Tiger Tough.”
He gave the boys something to work for. If the kids felt good about themselves it would help them behave with one another. In our interview Starkey told about the boys’ involvement with the city, the police and the county. He had boys he sent to work at the police department. The cops would even take the boys out to lunch with them. When the Hall of Justice was built, Starkey took the boys into town and they moved all the furniture into the new Hall of Justice.
They used the Olympic swimming pool so they could find out what level of proficiency the boys could swim. They had several skill levels from “tadpoles” on up classifying their level of proficiency. They held special swimming training to prepare boys to become lifeguards. They would then offer these boys services to Miller Park Swimming Pool to be life guards at no charge. Miller Pool said they were better lifeguards than the ones they had to pay.
Former tackle #74 for the New York Giants has ambled off the field of service to his state and fellow citizens. Those who worked with Ralph C. Starkey admired him and he will be missed. More stories are in the works about this institution that was a model for the entire United States.
Historical Sketches of the B.I.S.
by Bill & Jean Venrick
Lancaster, Ohio – Copyrighted 2009
RALPH C. STARKEY, Lancaster, OH, FSB Supt. dies
FSB, aka B.I.S.