Memories from Starr

Starr recently received a letter from Don Potrafka, an alum from 1930, filled with memories of the Starr Albion campus and Uncle Floyd. We were so touched by his story that we made him our Alumni Spotlight in the Fall 2013 issue of Starr News.

Below you can read the full version of Don Potrafka’s story.

If you are interested in becoming an Alumni Spotlight, please send your stories to info@starr.org.

*****

Why I came to Starr Commonwealth for Boys on October 17, 1930 I didn’t know at the time. Now I realize that it was the result of my father and mother being divorced in 1925 at Traverse City, Michigan and mother could not watch me and my sister and also work long and late hours at the telephone company in Alma, Michigan. I can recall being shuffled around between staying with my mother, then a stay with an Aunt Bertha Robertson in Traverse City and a short stay with my father who worked on the highway near Lake City, Michigan.

Don Potrafka2

Don Potrafka when he attended Starr Commonwealth.

With limited supervision, a young boy under ten years of age surely can get into trouble. Although, I don’t believe there were any serious troubles which I might have caused the family. Apparently, it was decided that a home like Starr was needed to care for me and guide me through those tender years of my youth. As “there is no such thing as a bad boy”, Uncle Floyd opened his arms and heart to me in that fall of 1930. I look back now on those two years at Starr as one of the great experiences of my life.

When I arrived at Starr, there was the Gladsome house where Uncle Floyd lived and the Old Barn down by the lake which was the start of Starr Commonwealth. There was Newton Hall where I first lived and Wilcox Cottage where I lived just before leaving Starr. Boys were grouped by ages for each cottage with a housemother for supervision. One building was used for offices, school and chapel.

The Hillside Commissary was where all the meals were prepared. Food was grown on the Starr Farm located along the main road leading into Albion. The older boys worked on the farm and went to high school in Albion. During the summer, the younger boys and I worked snapping beans and shelling peas outside the front of the Commissary. Others helped to pick the beans, peas and cucumbers. I guess they were canned for use throughout the year.

My stay at Newton Hall is most vivid in my memories of Starr. Here I learned to make my bed, help to clean the cottage, set tables in the dining room and do other chores needed at home. We slept in a large dormitory on the second floor. I can remember I liked to go to the commissary to pick up the food for our meals. I remember one time when running down the hill I slipped on the wet grass and fell down. I was carrying a glass jar and it broke and a piece of glass jabbed into my left wrist next to my little finger. I don’t recall it being a serious situation.

We ate at tables which seated four boys at each table. We all had to be seated and a prayer was said before we could start eating. I remember that we could have only butter, peanut butter or jelly on our bread. We were not allowed to have some of each on a slice of bread. If we did something wrong while eating we had to stand behind our chair for awhile and watch others eating. Of course we never went without our meals, but it quickly taught us to behave at mealtime. After meals, tables were cleared and we took turns washing, drying and putting away the dishes. It was always a fun job to do.

Starr was always open, no fences, and we could go to the playground down by the lake. Those who could swim could swim out to the raft and dive from it. I remember one boy getting tangled in the weeds in the lake and someone had to help him get back to shore. There was a dance hall across the lake and we could hear the bands and the people having fun on Saturday nights. I can remember when playing on the playground I would play I was a train. I always liked trains as I had ridden them and had been near them earlier in my life. The steam engines fascinated me with the big wheels, driving rods, whistle and bell. I used my arms to imitate the driving rods and would go “choo-chooing” around the playground making the noises of a steam engine.

I can recall the time I walked down the road from Starr to a small creek where I played before returning to Newton Hall. I was always trusted by my housemother and loved and obeyed her because she was like a mother to me. Of course there was always that fear of having to go see Uncle Floyd. He was the one “who had the strap he used for spankings”, so we were told. I never had to go there but do recall being spanked one time by the housemother. I probably deserved it.
During weekdays I went to school, but I don’t recall much about that. I remember that I sang in the chorus and played castanets. It was great fun. Our group would perform at different meetings of grownups.

Don Potrafka at Graduation in 1939

Don Potrafka at Graduation in 1939

One of our big days was Starr Tag Day. We were always excited by that as it meant leaving Starr in a big truck early in the morning for a nearby town to give out tags for donations received from people on the streets. One of the towns we went to was Marshall, which had a large water fountain with changing colored lights. We could see these lights for a long distance as we came into the town. It was so very pretty from a distance. When we arrived in a town, each boy was stationed on a street corner in the downtown area. Each of us was given a bunch of round red tags with a string on it and a can with an opening in the top so money could be put in the can by the people who wanted to help us. We would ask people if they would help our home and when they gave us money we would give them a tag to wear and would be sure to say “thank you” each time. We always wanted to see who had the heaviest can at the end of the day. We usually had sandwiches and soft drinks which were brought to us. It was like going on a picnic.

It was usually dark on the way home. Sometimes it was chilly riding home so we always cuddled together behind the cab of the truck to get out of the wind. I can remember the election was in progress for I saw Republican banners, flags and pins and heard about Hoover and Roosevelt.

One time we visited the Post cereal factory in Battle Creek, but when we got there the plant was closed due to a strike of the workers. We didn’t get to see how cornflakes were made, but we visited the plant club room and were treated to soft drinks and samples of cereal to take home.

I don’t remember seeing any movies and there weren’t  any televisions at that time. We never paid much attention to radio, for we played with the toys in the playroom or went to the playground. We didn’t have any bicycles to play with. At bedtimes when the lights were turned out, we would take turns telling spooky stories before going to sleep.

Holidays at Starr were always exciting. Fourth of July parades, Thanksgiving with turkey and Christmas with caroling and gifts were something we always looked forward to at Starr. Of course, we didn’t know all the nice people who supplied the money and gifts for us children. I do recall how we would get the Christmas stamps ready for mailing to all those who supported the work of Uncle Floyd.

I know Uncle Floyd would go out to talk to groups to get people to help with the needs of Starr. A friend of mine recently told me of the time that Uncle Floyd came to Traverse City, Michigan and told the people about his home for boys. She said that everyone marveled at the work he was doing and supported his work. Sometimes money was needed to build new buildings or repair the older ones. All of our cottages were usually named after the person who provided the money to build the cottage.

I’ve often heard Uncle Floyd say, “There is no such thing as a bad boy”. He was an inspiration to all of us and we always tried to be good for Uncle Floyd. We always had Sunday School every Sunday where we sang Christian songs and studied about Jesus. This was a great influence in my life as I grew up after leaving Starr.

I guess the reason I left Starr was because my father had found out I was there. There was a lady who wanted to

Don Potrafka1

Don Potrafka and his grandson visiting Starr Commonwealth.

adopt me. I guess when they contacted my father about the possible adoption, he and his new wife decided I should come to live with them. I left Starr Commonwealth on December 8, 1932.

But though I left Starr, I have never forgotten all the good things I received from Uncle Floyd, and the wonderful memories of my stay there have been a guidepost in my life – a change in direction from a boy in need to a man who served his country for thirty years in our Armed Forces.

I cherish these memories of my two years at Starr Commonwealth which cannot be forgotten and I’m always thankful that there was such a place to help me grow up. If there is a Children’s Home in Heaven, it will be Uncle Floyd’s.

Thank you, Uncle Floyd, wherever you are.

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