Albion Interactive History / People / Eleanor Langley

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / People / Starr Commonwealth

Eleanor Langley
Commonwealth Administrator


Immediately after leaving military service, Gordon Langley enrolled in the three year pre-lawprogram at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.Soon Gordon met a vivacious business administration major named Eleanor Larson. Upon their introduction, Eleanor knew little of Uncle Floyd and the Commonwealth, but Gordon soon made her an authority – and a convert. When Starr pronounced Eleanor “a very charming young lady indeed,” his approval was all the encouragement Gordon needed. On August 21, 1949, “Two hundred guests witnessed the candlelight ceremony when Gordon Langley and EleanorLarson were united in marriage by Dr. Dwight Large of the First United MethodistChurch of Kalamazoo.” Within the decade that followed, three daughters came into the family: Diana in 1951, Janice in 1954, andMarcia in 1957. At Founder’s Day in 1951, Diana had the distinction of being the first “Starr baby” baptized in the newly completedChapel-in-the-Woods.

After their marriage, Gordon absorbed a variety of administrative experiences under thewatchful eye of Uncle Floyd and Eleanor gained business experience as an executive secretary with the Ford Motor Company.Barely two years had passed however, when Starr acquired the Beckman estate in 1951. As he admitted later, he bought the property in part with theLangley’s in mind. With his own protégé in charge and Eleanor a highly capable assistant, Starr was confident that he had at hand the ideal administrators for the Ohio Branch. 

So far as the Van Wert project was concerned, Starr was right in his prognosis. Almost within days after theLangley’s took over, the early misgivings in the community vanished.The Starr branch did grow. According to Starr, “Gordon could raise money hand over fist,” and his wife Eleanor was at least as effective. Between them and the field secretary, within some three years they had gatheredsufficient donor support to erect a second cottage. Both Star and the Langley’s believed in a policy ofconsistent growth whenever feasible. This soon led to construction of a third cottage, raising enrollment to 32.

Langley next was able to complete a fund raising drive for a school building and gymnasium. Early in the spring of 1964, work began on the $125,000 physical education building.

In retrospect one can only marvel at the accomplishment of Gordon Langley during those formative years at the Ohio Branch. With Eleanor, he established aninstitution which has lifted scores of Ohio youth out of the morass of frustration and failure onto the highroad to self-esteem and success. At the same time he did not neglect his adopted community.Somehow he found time for holding offices in the Rotary Club, joining the Masons, taking part in the Civic Theater, serving various posts in the Methodist Church, andconducting the regional United Fund campaign. Indeed, he was so active that in 1956 he received the Junior Chamber of Commerce Award as the “Outstanding young Man ofVan Wert county.” Perhaps the most remarkable achievement in those busy years was earning his Master’s degree in Social Work at Ohio State University between 1957 and 1959.

Then in 1964 Gordon Langely made a quick visit to the Albion campus. Learning that UncleFloyd was away for the day, Gordon asked Mrs. Erwin Mason to tell Starr that he was to have an exploratory operation on his throat the following day.As the Starr boys might say, cancer isn’t a fair fighter. It strikes without warning, it evades confrontation, it plays foul all the way. Gordon was not asmoker, he had passed stringent military examinations, he was a good fifth man on a basketball team. Yet the biopsy hadrevealed unmistakable cancer of the larynx.

The larynx was removed, only to reveal a greater depth to the cancer. Despite every effort, the disturbed cells ran rampant throughout his body. As Starr later described the turn of events, “About the fourth day after the operation, something gave way and Gordon was dead.”As Gordon requested, his body was cremated and the ashes interred on the Ohio campus ha had grown to love. On Friday evening, June 12, 1964, Dr. Paul Chiles, pastor of the First Methodist Church in Van Wert, conducted a memorial service for the family. The minister had known Gordon well, for he had long been a mainstay of the church choir and was a former superintendent of the Sunday School.

Two days later Rev. Chiles officiated at the outdoor “Memorial Program” for Langley’s many friends and associates. With Uncle Floyd from Albion came the Starr Boys Choir and Rev. H. Austin Pellett, the school chaplain. In his “remarks,” an eighty-one-year-old Starr still spoke of triumphantliving. “To me,” he asserted, “Gordon is not dead, nor will he ever die. He lives in these buildings about you, in these flowers whose beauty he shared. So long as we see his smile, hear his voice, Gordon lives.”

As Starr recalled, “A day or two after the memorial service I said to Eleanor, ‘I believe you can take Gordon’splace. Indeed, I can’t think of anyone better qualified.’ And she said, ‘UncleFloyd, I was really hoping that I might go on with his work.'”

Surely the transition was not that simple, but neither was it that formidable. As the StarrReview explained, “Throughout the past 13 years Mrs. Langley worked closelywith her husband in administering the school. She had been responsible for bookkeeping and secretarial duties during much of this period. She also served as acting director during the two years Langley was doinggraduate work at Ohio State University.” For the Michigan press Starr added, “Mrs. Langley is aptly suited to carry out her late husband’s work, for she is as much a part of theinstitution’s heritage and program as was Gordon Langley.” Time proved the wisdom of his choice.

Fortunately for the new director, at mid-June the student vacation cycle had already begun and a work/recreation program was well underway on the campus. “All in all,” she wrote Starr, “things are well organized for the summer. Some of my friends tell me I should take advantage of the first little breather and get away from the school. I should have fun atdinner parties, take a cruise. For me, life’s not meant to be that easy. I’d much rather work than waste my time on things that are boring to me.”

Floyd Starr was not one to warn a colleague about overworking, but he did have other advice. “As you take up your new duties,” he wrote, “you are going tofind, like all people who hold executive positions, that you will be open at times to criticism. Don’t let any of that criticism affect you in any way, unless you find it constructive and helpful. During the last fifty years I think I have had about every form of criticism that any one man could endure. I have paid no attention to what people have said. I have gone forward with my work and left my reputation to take care of itself.”

At first Langley followed familiar ways. In her initial editorial for the Van Wert Starr Review she wrote, “Every day I become more aware of the rich heritage that my late husband has left in his work here at Starr Commonwealth. He left a loyal and competent staff, well planned facilities, an efficient and smooth working program withwell-defined goals for the future.” Those who knew Eleanor, however, suspected that she wouldsoon add goals of her own.

Year after year the Starr Review featured reports with such banners as “EleanorLangley Continues Upgrading Starr Program” and “Innovations Improve Academic Program.” In 1967 the Fort-Wayne Journal Gazette devoted nearly half a page to an illustrated article under the heading “Director of Juvenile Home Performs Job With Insight.” Citing the school’s group therapy program as “aforward-looking approach to the problem of juvenile rehabilitation,” the article also recognizedEleanor as “a woman with a strong sense of duty who obviously possesses the patience, fortitude and skill to administer a residential home for boys with emotional and behavioral problems.” Under her direction, the interview concluded, “the school’s program has drawn words of praise from judges, social workers and juvenile authorities.”

Eleanor Langley was amply endowed with personal drive. In the last summer of 1968 the Van Wert Times-Bulletin announced, “The Starr Commonwealth Advisory Board has granted an educational leave to Mrs. Langley, director of the Starr Commonwealth for boys at Van Wert. Mrs. Langley and her daughters will leave August 24 to attend the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. At present she plans to return to Van Wert at the completion of her graduate work.” Kenneth Welch, the social service director, became acting director during her absence.

For Mrs. Langley and her three teenage daughters, Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan provided a welcome contrast to the semi-seclusion of the Starr Commonwealth of Ohio.Eleanor combined admirably her dual role as mother and student, achieving her Master’s Degree in Social Work in June 1969. The girls decided that there was only one drawback to the leave of absence – it was toobrief. For their mother, however, it was too long.

The school to which the Langley’s returned was not the same institution which theyhad left, and Eleanor Langley found the changes ominous. While she was gone, Welch had left and a new acting director has been appointed. Quite on hisown, this man had built up his own staff until it consisted of a psychiatric social worker, two group workers, a part-time psychologist and himself. With such an array of counselors, one newspaper noted, “the boys are now in group therapy sessions seven to eight hours each week in addition to individual consultations whenever the needarises.”

Other members of the staff had also taken advantage of Mrs. Langley’s absence to revise the campus regulations, redraft school policies, even rearrange room assignments at will. To her complete surprise, she found her own office moved from the central school building to a small structure near the entrance to the grounds known locally as “the gatehouse,” a location that effectively isolated the director from the institution.

Mrs. Langley soon found herself a participant in a power struggle not of her making. Unknown to her, the second in command had gathered his forces, made his moves, and drawn the battle lines. Admittedly, the time was propitious for insurgence. At Albion a new president had just taken over the Commonwealth from an elderly Floyd Starr, and he knew little about the Ohio Branch. Indeed, as President Arlin Ness admitted, “Dr. LarryBendtro, my predecessor, had only been to Van Wert once or twice during Mrs. Langley’s leave. He was more than occupied with the affairs right here at home.”

For nearly two years, in spite of her best efforts the rift between the director and her staff widened. At last Dr. Bendtro wrote to her, “Eleanor, you don’t need to get into a squabble with those fellows there. You come up to Albion – we need you here.”

It took a while for her to consider the offer. As she looked about the campus to which she and Gordon had come as newlyweds, she realized how much of their lives had been devoted to the school. Now that a new element had arisen, however, she began to feel something akin to relief that she might escape before open rebellion broke out.

Then, too, there were Diana, Janice, and Marcia to consider. Aside from the academicsojourn in Ann Arbor, the girls had spent their entire lives in an environment populated solely by young males.Perhaps Harriet Starr was right half a century ago – a boy’s school is a dubious place for rearing girls. Furthermore, Eleanor told the Van Wert reporter, “I wanted to spendmore time with my family.” Reluctantly, she decided to leave the Ohio Branch.

Upon his return to Albion, Bendtro appointed Mrs. Langley to the administrative team in Albion. In her new position, theVan Wert Times-Bulletin explained, “She will be responsible for general administrative duties and staff supervision in the home life and clinical service areas of the program, as well as serving as the liaison between the school and court and social servicereferral agencies.”

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

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