Albion Interactive History / People / Arlin Ness

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / People / Starr Commonwealth

Arlin Ness
3rd President Starr Commonwealth


Ever since then president Larry Bendtro had revealed to the Executive Committee his candidacy for the academic position at Augustanna College, he had encouraged the Board to forego a national search for his successor and to move promptly in offering the presidency to VicePresident Ness. The Board concurred on his recommendation.

Since his summer-camp days as “aquatic instructor and unit supervisor,” Arlin Ness had served as youth worker for the YMCA during his undergraduate years, as counselor for the Iowa Board of Corrections, and as a social worker for the Story County, Iowa, Department of Social Welfare. From these various assignments, Ness had gained direct experience in everything from “crisis counseling for family conflicts and runaway services to juveniles” to “licensing foster homes and counseling neglected and abused children.”

Academically speaking, Ness also had brought with him to Albion amble evidence of his scholastic prowess. After receiving hisbachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology from Augustanna College in 1964, he devoted a year to “advanced study in psychology, literature and Norwegian language” at the University of Oslo in Norway. As a representative American student, he was invited to attend the ceremony at which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Martin Luther King. “It was a singular experience,” Ness acknowledged later. “Somehow I felt a sense of personal loss when Kingwas assassinated.”

The following year, after earning a master’s degree in social work at the University ofIowa, Ness became the Director of Residential Services for the Starr Commonwealth. Later he assumed the rank of adjunct professor in the Department of Human Service Education at Ohio State University. LikeBendtro before him, he also participated in Western Michigan University’s educateur intern program.

When Arlin Ness first came to the Albion campus, he knew little about Uncle Floyd or the Starr Commonwealth. Shortly afterthe Ness family settled in their Albion home, Starr invited Arlin and his wife Barbara to Candler Hall for “just a simple supper” with him. Arlin still remembers with a shock of surprise. “Uncle’s idea of simplicity wasn’t ours by a country mile. We had a full-course formal dinner – everything from fancy hors d’oeuvres to finger bowls. During the main course I had a hard time chasing peas around my plate, cutting the baked chicken, and still appearing as if I ate in that fashion every evening.”

While the Ness children, Carin, Carla, and timothy were growing up, Starr occasionally invited the family to supper at Candler Hall. “If the weather was nice,” Ness recalled, “Uncle would have pancakes or chili out on the patio, since he knew the youngsters would enjoy something on that order.” Suchsimple incident bespeak the warm friendship which endured until Starr’s final hours.

Since June 1981, Arlin Ness has been the third president of the Starr Commonwealth Schools. Even Starr would concede that this has become a daunting position.According to a recent report “Starr offers a broad base of services to over 2000 youths and their families annuallythrough programs which include Residential Care, Treatment Foster Care, In-home Care, Alternative Education, Child and Family Counseling, and Outdoor Adventure Education.” toaccommodate such an ambitious program, “Starr commonwealth now has four locations: Albion and Detroit, Michigan; Van West and Columbus, Ohio. All the programs are staffed with experienced professional men and women who work together to develop the full potential of each boy and girl regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Tocoordinate such a diverse operation, “The president provides leadership to a staff of 370 teachers, educators, clinicians, fiscal management personnel, and a development/public relations staff.”

Ness was described as “nationally prominent in the field of child care” when he became president in 1981, he has since added a new dimension to his professional activities. On the world scene, in the past he has appeared before the International Congresses on Troubled Children and Youth at Copenhagen, Denmark, and in Jerusalem, Israel. Since 1986 he was an Executive Board member of the International Association of Workers for Troubled Children and Youth centered at Geneva, Switzerland. He also served as chairman for the 1990 XII World Congress held in New York City.

In 1988 Ness summed up of his work and all of those people before him, in words also used to conclude Keith Fennimore‘s book on Starr Commonwealth: “In this memorial year, I warmly embrace the judgment of the past that Floyd Starr was a remarkable man. I also heartily endorse the general opinion of today that the Starr Commonwealth School constitute a remarkable organization. Together theyprovide a unique chapter in the history of child care in America. Without the support of many friends, however, child-care agencies like the Starr Commonwealth Schools could never exist. Together we can share a sense of pride in knowing that we really are helping special young people and their families to face a promising future.”

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

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