Hard-luck cases haven't hardened him

October 30, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Luther Williams Starnes escaped his childhood without getting tagged with a nickname. But the secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources has one now that sticks like Krazy Glue.

"I'm known affectionately as 'Secretary Hard Luck,' " said Mr. Starnes, who's also the minister at the 150-member Gary Memorial United Methodist Church in Ellicott City. "Some call me 'Rev. Hard Luck.' "

The nickname refers to the people in dire straits he has helped over more than two decades working for the state -- those "hard-luck cases."

This summer, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him the state's human resources secretary to replace Carolyn W. Colvin, who resigned in July to take a federal government job.

Earning $100,344 a year, Mr. Starnes oversees a department with a $1 billion budget and 7,000 employees.

The human services agency handles more than 80,000 cases of Aid to Families with Dependent Children across the state, and its Project Independence has made 11,970 job placements since the welfare-to-work program began in 1989. In Howard County, more than 800 families receive AFDC benefits and 1,100 households receive food stamps.

Mr. Starnes, 58, served more than 20 years in state government under six secretaries and three governors, before being named to his high-ranking position.

"The Department of Human Resources is all about helping people who need help, and Luther has been doing that his entire life," said Joseph L. Harrison, a press secretary for the governor.

"His [the governor's] primary philosophy in government is that we are here to help people, and Luther personified that."

Hard luck soon may bite Mr. Starnes, though. He is the first to acknowledge that he may not have his job for long. The days in office are waning for his longtime friend the governor.

No personal plans

bTC "I won't make any personal plans beyond the 20th or whatever the date is in January," Mr. Starnes said, referring to the date when the governor-elect takes office.

If he retires on Jan. 1, 1995, under a deferred pension plan, he'll get an estimated $1,433 each month, said Peter Vaughn, executive director for the state retirement system.

"He's getting a bigger salary [now] but it's not helping his pension benefits," Mr. Vaughn said. "As time goes on, it will."

L Meanwhile, Mr. Starnes said the agency's work must continue.

"There will be people coming here on Election Day and Inauguration Day," he said.

However long his stay may be, Mr. Starnes said he plans to create a sense of compassion for clients and joy for his employees. He also wants to increase cooperation among state agencies and creativity in dealing with the department's huge budget.

'Last resort'

He said his role as a minister will help him accomplish those goals. Being a minister helped shape his views about the people his department serves.

"I don't submit to the notion that people are on welfare because they want to be here," Mr. Starnes said. "They are here because it's a last resort."

Similarly, he wants to improve the morale of his workers, who are often stressed trying to help people in serious situations. To show employees he cares about them, Mr. Starnes has begun visiting the state's 24 social services centers.

He said, "We're going to enjoy each other . . have a good time and lift the spirits of people."

Whenever he needs a lift, Mr. Starnes can look out of his 10th-floor office window in the state Human Resources headquarters building in downtown Baltimore and see how far ** he's risen. In the panoramic view of the city, he sees the state office building where he started more than 20 years ago, at $16,300 a year.

Photographs from his five-years as a WBAL talk-show host help decorate one of the walls in his new office. Among the items on his desk are a microphone radio that his wife gave him and a Lion King figurine.

"One of my staff people gave me the Lion King to give me courage," he said.

"He goes into this with more than just his head," said Walinda P. West, a DHR spokeswoman said. "He goes into this with his heart."

A Methodist minister

Mr. Starnes, a native of Tennessee, received a bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts and attended seminary school at the American University in Washington, D.C.

He was a Methodist minister for 12 years before he joined state government.

His climb up the state ladder began in the early 1970s when he became director of public information for the Department of Human Resources under then-Gov. Marvin Mandel. At that time, more than 200 state agencies were reorganized into about a dozen departments.

'Toiled in the vineyard'

He later would become executive assistant to the human resources secretary and director of government and community relations for the employment and training department. He served the last five years as Governor Schaefer's coordinator of citizen services.

"He toiled in the vineyard and paid his dues," says Roger P. Winter, who met Mr. Starnes as a state resource development officer in the 1970s.

"The other thing is, he is a minister. I think that has always been one of his strengths. He approaches things in a context of values. That's why I think he has a good balance about clients' concerns and taxpayers' concerns."

Mr. Winter, now director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, left state government in 1980 to head the Carter administration's refugee resettlement office.

Mr. Starnes lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Joyce, who works at Wilde Lake High School. The couple has three boys, one daughter and five grandchildren.

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