For full picture of Starr, focus on his Texas roots High school mates recall straight-laced student whom 'no one picked on'

September 13, 1998|By Barry Shlachter

To understand the drive and perseverance of Kenneth Starr, you have to examine his Texas roots, friends say.

A glimpse of Starr's formative years presents a picture that meshes little with the White House's portrayal of him as a relentless, if not brutal, and politically motivated inquisitor.

The son of a minister, Starr was born in Vernon, Texas, but attended school in San Antonio after his family moved to a small house on the outskirts of the South Texas city. His classmates and teachers recall him as a squeaky-clean, mild-mannered, straight-A student.

Even friends who voted for President Clinton say the straight-arrow Ken Starr they know from high school, subsequent reunions and his visits back to Texas is a far cry from the image spun by some in Washington.

"I think people are mistaking the fact that Ken is a very focused and intense person," said Jim Hays, a high school classmate of Starr and now a Houston computer consultant and a political independent. "I know Ken Starr, and he is not a cruel and vindictive person. He was given an assignment and is very committed to getting it done.

"As a taxpayer, I can say for all of us, the amount being spent is an extraordinary sum. But we may not have spent so much if there had been earlier disclosures by the president."

At Sam Houston High School on the Alamo city's east side, Starr never went out for athletics and - largely because of his fundamentalist background - might never have jitterbugged. Instead of dating, he'd sit in front of the television each night shining his shoes and then his father's, his 90-year-old mother Annie recalled last week.

But the meticulous son of a Church of Christ minister was not what would be classified today as your standard high school nerd. Despite being one of the class brains, he was immensely popular and widely considered a caring and sensitive classmate, one to be relied on, said Gary O. Smith, who served on the student council with Starr and is a San Antonio College professor.

Elected class president his junior and senior years ("Star with Starr!" was one of his slogans), he also was voted the 1964 graduating class' "most likely to succeed."

Beyond his then-thin frame, baby face and rural drawl - picked up from early years in Thalia, near Vernon - classmates saw that Starr grasped things far before they did, said John Villareal, who was in Starr's homeroom class.

"He was a few years ahead of his time in high school," said Villareal, 52, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas-Pan American at Edinburg. "I remember him the day President Kennedy got shot. It was announced at lunch hour, and we were in homeroom. It affected him more than any of us. I remember him crying when it was announced. Not many of us were aware of the impact. The rest of us were in a state of shock, but it affected him more."

Starr wrote a heartfelt column about Kennedy for the school paper, The Raven, and later in college joined the Young Democrats. It would be years before he became a conservative Republican.

tTC Starr was in high school during the early 1960s, the last gasp of the rah-rah years of school spirit and crew cuts and before the Vietnam protest era had politically charged the nation's youth.

"All we were doing was dating and cheerleading, but with Kenneth, who could be cool, you knew there was more depth," said Diane Bohannon Craig, who was selected with Starr as "citizens of the year" by the Sam Houston High faculty in 1964.

A Realtor in San Antonio, Craig said: "We weren't locked into heavy issues. He could be very serious. A lot of that had to do with his upbringing.

As a teen-ager, Starr never cursed or drank, friends say. His high school adviser, English teacher Roberta Mahan, said Starr was a photographer for the yearbook and the newspaper who would good-naturedly inform a classmate that swearing wasn't necessary when something suddenly went wrong in the darkroom.

"Straight-laced but with a good sense of humor, nonathletic but straight A's," recalled Mahan, 80.

But class bullies never targeted Starr, who dressed as an elf for a yearbook Coke ad and played a character called "Margaret" in a talent-show skit.

"Ken was pretty much appreciated for his leadership abilities, and no one picked on him," Villareal said.

Starr was born July 21, 1946, in a Vernon hospital and spent his early years in Thalia. He was the youngest of three children. His sister, Billie Jean, a retired Houston schoolteacher, is 16 years older; his brother, Jerry, an Abilene college instructor, is six years older.

Like others, Villareal is staggered by the millions of dollars spent on the drawn-out Whitewater investigation and, later, the inquiry into the president's relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"That's hard to take," he said. "Money in those circles is a drop in the bucket. But for us in the Valley, that's a large sum that could do wonders. Thirty million could cover scholarships for 20 years, endow 10 faculty professorships or build a new science building."

"Many of us in South Texas believe it's pretty much the president's business as long as it doesn't affect the country," Villareal said of the Lewinsky affair. "Again, lying under oath is serious. So Clinton might be getting what he deserves.

"My feeling is that Ken is just doing what he's charged to do. I don't think he's hellbent to get the president. I don't remember Ken Starr having any animosity toward anybody."

Smith agreed, saying, "If it was his own party, the investigation would have been the same.

"Ken has convictions, principles, and has stayed loyal to them. This quest for truth is nothing new. It's him."

Barry Shlacter wrote this article for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where it first appeared.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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