Albion Interactive History / People / Larry Brendtro

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / People / Starr Commonwealth

Larry Brendtro
2nd President Starr Commonwealth


While a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, a promising young South Dakotannamed Larry Brendtro  had been a frequent visitor on the Albion campus to gather materials for his dissertation. In 1966 he received his Ph.D. in psychology and served as assistant professor at the University of Illinois from January till June, 1967. When word of the search for a president at the Starr Commonwealth reachedBrendtro  in mid-term that spring, he submitted his application for the position.

One needs but a glance at his vita to understand why the Board of Trustees moved swiftly to secure the twenty-six-year-old bachelor to head the institution. Under “Areas of Teaching Expertise” it listed “Juvenile delinquency, emotional disturbances, exceptional children, child and adolescent psychology,human service administration, group work, and child/youth services.” In short, the Board offered him a contract, he accepted, and in the early summer of 1967, Dr. Larry Brendtro  became the second president of the Starr Commonwealth.

The young executive soon discovered that the Commonwealth had been drifting for months following the resignation of Lee Reynolds.Now in the mid-eighties, Starr was still bound to an irretrievable past, but his one-time chain of command had lost vital links. He had been the power figure for half a century; now he had to turn over his rule to a relative neophyte in the boy business. It was not an easy exchange for him nor his successor.

Within the year after Starr’s retirement, the new president and his staff initiated tow modifications in the social structure of the Albion campus. In an effort to recapture something like the intimacy of the original design,Brendtro  wrote to one donor in 1968, “We have reorganized our dwellings into ‘communities’ of four or five cottages with trained group workers and experiencedcounselors working with the boys, giving guidance, therapy, understanding and love in full measure.” “Happily,” he added, “each of the newer cottages was designed to care for ten to twelve boys, just the right number for the households we have in mind.”

Later, when the community structure became a permanent part of Starr Commonwealth, LarryBrendtro  and Arlin Ness invited the ninety-four-year-old Starr to suggest names for the communities. “Uncle was delighted to be asked,” saidBrendtro . “He approved our proposal with his old enthusiasm, then suggested first that the label village be substituted for community.” That accomplished, he named the original campus Lakeview Village, the eastside cottages on the North Campus Maple Village, and the westside cottages Cedar Village.”

The other move was more drastic in its ramifications. As noted before, Brendtro  was intrigued by the guided group interaction program which Eleanor Langley had instituted at Van Wert. In fact, he and his co-workers became so convinced that it might well be just what the Albion school urgently needed that they decided to give it a thorough trial. A consultant was retained to implement a treatment system called Positive Peer Culture which utilized Guided Group Interaction as its core method in working with troubled youths.

“It took lots of time and patience and coffee to win worker approval of the PPC concept,” he recalled, “and that was only half the battle. The boys can present problems too. Even after youthink you’ve sold the idea, you practically have to drag the kids, kicking and screaming into the program.” Toeveryone’s surprise, however, Brendtro  remarked afterwards, “once the dust settles and the groundrules are determined, the process is almost self-perpetuating.”

In fact, it was not long before Positive Peer Counseling became an accepted part of the daily cottage routine.

Together Brendtro  and Ness worked to shorten the length of stay of students. Where at its founding it cost $1 a day to take care of a boy, by 1988 that number was closer to $100 or $110. With rates like these, the Department of SocialServices and the juvenile courts throughout Michigan and Ohio have demanded more vigorous programs at treatment centers like the Starr School, to induce earlier releases. By judiciously enhancing the counseling staff, revising the curriculum, and expanding correlative programs, the Commonwealthachieved remarkable results. In the 1986-87 “Report to the Board of Trustees,” President Ness stated that “the average number of months graduating students were in treatment was an even 12.0 months.”

During these developments Starr remained in CandlerHall, but he took ever longer winter vacations in warmer climes. “finally it dawned on me,” recalledBrendtro , “that this man was certain to die eventually. Instead of wasting my opportunitiesto learn from him, I should capitalize on this longevity and learn what I could. First I began to share my vacation time with him, as on our New England trip. Then Idecided to take him with me on my Thursday business trips. Uncle loved that – he loved to ride, he loved to talk, and he loved to have a captive audience.”

Dr. Larry Brendtro  had been president of the Starr Commonwealth Schools for thirteen years when Floyd Starr died. During that time he retained an office in the Emily Jewel Clark Building, kept a personal secretaryjust with letters and memoranda, and participated in various school activities. “In fact,”Brendtro  recalled, “it was Founder’s Day, 1979, before he finally announced, Dr. Brendtro , Starr Commonwealth is yours to serve, these boys are yours to love and help, and these friends are yours to cherish.” On the sameoccasion he declared, “I believe in the power of positive affirmation; I believe that as long asthe people of this school believe in themselves and in the Divine Direction of God, the work of the Starr Commonwealth will proceed in but one direction – forward!”

A tradition of partnership in the operation of juvenile redirectional facilities had gained momentum during the mid-years of LarryBrendtro ‘s tenure as president. Always in favor of cooperative ventures, in 1972 Brendtro encouraged Arlin Ness and his colleagues in establishing the Ohio Association of Child CaringAgencies. After serving his apprenticeship as president of the reorganized Starr complex, in September 1978,Brendtro  was elected to a one-year term as president elect of the National Association of Homes for Children at its annual conference in Minneapolis. In addition to articles in academic journals, in 1969 he had collaborated with Albert Trieschman and James Whittaker in The Other 23Hours. Then in 1974 he joined with Harry Vorrath in the publication of Positive Peer Culture. Both have gone through additional printings to become minor classics in child-care studies. While president of the Starr Commonwealth,Brendtro  also collaborated with Arlin Ness in publishing Re-educating Troubled Youth: Environments for Teaching and Treatment.

When Brendtro  resigned in 1981, he declared that his fourteen years at the Commonwealth hadbeen “personally and professionally rewarding,” but he admitted that he had been looking forward toreturning to the stimulation of classroom interplay and campus activities at Augustanna College. Even so, the decision hadnot been easy. “There is not a director of any school in this land,” he wrote, “who could ask for a finer group of co-workers or a more promising generation of students than are found at the Starr Commonwealth today.” Indeed, both Larry and his wife Janna would leave many friends behind.

Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.

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