The Legacy of Tom Starr

Baby-boomers will remember the 30 minute sea voyage we took every week on the Argonaut.  The dashing Scuba Diver, Mike Nelson, was played by Lloyd Bridges, he was an ex-Navy frogman described as a no-nonsense underwater soldier of fortune.  In over 150 episodes he dove into the depths of the sea opening the eyes of America, maybe for the first time, to the ominous, mysterious and powerful wonders of a little known world.  My brother, Brett, and I held our breath and watched transfixed as Mike Nelson put himself in great peril.  At times he nearly ran out of his life sustaining air which he carried on his back with a lifeline to the love of his life, his boat The Argonaut.   He was an underwater warrior who did what it took and wouldn’t quit until the job was done.  Whether he had to wrestle an octopus or evil doer, he always came out on top and climbed back onto his boat and all within a 30 thrilling minutes.  A real man’s man who boys could look up to and plot great adventures to take as they grew into men and girls could see as the handsome, strong and brave man, in their future, with whom they might sail off into the sunset.

As I sat with my brother in the late 1950’s and watched Mike Nelson go out weekly on a new sea voyage in pursuit of an adventure in the powerful sea I couldn’t have known that when I grew up I would experience a real life sea hunt.  When I was a child I held my breath waiting for the drama to unfold and the hero to win.  The hero always survived and the crisis was resolved in 30 minutes.  That’s the way it should be.

Labor Day Weekend 2001 not only I, but millions of others in the northwest held their breath as they watched the televised reports of a real life sea hunt.  However, this sea hunt involved someone I loved, actually four that many loved.

At the center of this sea hunt was a man who had many of the same qualities of Mike Nelson.  He was handsome, strong and brave; a man’s man who also loved the sea and knew it well.  He was also a star; not on my television but in my life.  His name was Tom Starr and he was my pastor for nearly twenty years.

Tom was a man of passion; he was passionate about people.  He loved to encourage people to change, grow and become everything God intended.   He challenged them to do things they didn’t believe they were strong, smart or wise enough to do, lovingly reminding them they could accomplish great things if they trusted in God, and His power.

He was passionate about children.  Children loved him and he loved them back.  This was evident Sunday mornings when at the end of the service many children ran to him and were swept up into his arms.  This love for children prompted him to start Valley Christian School in 1975.  He wanted to build a firm and Godly foundation in the hearts of our children…our future.

He was passionate about his country and aroused Spokane’s patriotism when he combined his annual “God and Country” celebration with the “I Love America” musical, directed by Pastor Rich Stafford.  This patriotic celebration started in 1979 at Valley Fourth Church and grew so big it was moved to Riverfront Park, North Idaho College and finally The Spokane Opera House.  All elected state and county dignitaries were invited and many came, including former congressman, Tom Foley.  He always invited the President.   One year he got a letter from the White House.  President Ronald Reagan responded saying he was sorry that he was unable to attend.  Valley Fourth’s faithful secretary of many years, Wilma Swanson, made a few little changes to the letter graciously accepting the invitation to this wonderful patriotic event.  When she presented the tampered letter with the presidential letterhead to Pastor Tom he was so excited he could barely contain himself.  When he grasped that the President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, was coming to Spokane by HIS invitation he took it to the elders in a panic.  When Wilma sheepishly told him it was a joke.  He laughed harder than anyone in the room did.  The next day, he peeked in her office and with a stern face, asked her if she liked working there, he then broke out into an enormous grin and walked out of the room.  He had a delightful sense of humor, especially when the joke was on him.

He was passionate about his congregation.  He was involved in our lives; he shared tears of laughter and sadness.  He walked with our family through my valley of cancer; however, he warmed my heart the most when he was there when our oldest son, Michael, at only 15 years of age faced his serious, possibly life threatening, spinal surgery.

Tom, and his wife Betty, were in Oregon for a family reunion and a much deserved vacation.  He wanted to be with us at Shriner’s Hospital for Michael’s nine hour surgery.  Two of his associate pastors, Dwight and Don, knew Tom well and called him to tell him to stay and enjoy his family.  They assured him that they would be at the hospital with Jerry and me, others would be there, and they would call him as soon as Michael came out of surgery and we spoke with the doctor.  He reluctantly agreed.

Knowing Tom we were not surprised when we received a phone call at the hospital around 5 am.  However, we were surprised when he said that he and Betty drove back from Oregon to be with us.  Tom was a man of passion, he loved his flock with that passion and couldn’t bear the thought of us going through that without him.  He had planned to be at the hospital early but when they arrived home, he opened the trunk of the car to unload everything and a glass bottle of Coke exploded hurling a chunk of glass into his leg.  He went in cleaned up his leg and went to bed for a few short hours.  Arising at 4 am he stood at the sink to shave and felt something dripping on his foot…it was a mixture of blood and infection.  Betty took him to the emergency room, they removed more glass, put in a drain and instructed him to go home and put his leg up for a few days.   He prayed with Michael on the phone and said he would talk with us later.

Imagine our surprise when around 2:00 he came limping down the hall at the hospital.  I hugged him and said, “What are you doing here?  You’re supposed to be home in bed!”  He replied, “I’m not staying in bed, people die in bed!”  His heart was for us, his passion was for us and he could not stay away; our precious child was having surgery.

Tom and Betty knew parental love; they had seven children of their own.  With a twinkle in his eye he loved to tell the story of when his family stopped at a convenience store for gas and snacks.  His seven kids straggled in behind him.  The clerk grinned and asked him, “So, are you Catholic or Mormon?”  Delighted, he laughed and replied, “Just a careless Baptist!”

He was passionate about his beloved wife of nearly 47 years, Betty; he loved to tease her, he loved to make her smile.

He was passionate about his children and loved them dearly; and words can’t describe how he felt about his 17 grandchildren; which adds even more heartbreak to this sea hunt.  Three of his beloved grandsons, James, Ryan and Andrew were with him.  What happened?  We will never know and that is hard.

He was a man who loved the sea; he was extremely passionate about fishing, he named his boat “Visitation” so when he left he could say with a wink and a grin that he was “going out on visitation”.

It was well known that he was adamant that anyone who climbed on his boat wore a life jacket.  Days after it capsized they found the boys in their life jackets; but they never found Tom.

What happened off the coast of Washington, out there at sea that Labor Day weekend? How did this happen?  It is one of the most painful and bewildering mysteries our church family has ever tried to endure.  Why did this happen?  Why did this amazing man of God have to die so tragically?  James, Ryan and Andrew, were three wonderful young men who had such enthusiasm for life, such promise; their whole lives were ahead of them…why?  It has left us with so many questions and therefore baffled as to how God could let this happen to such amazing people who loved Him so.  We still don’t have any answers to this painful mystery.

I reflect on something Pastor Tom used to say during life’s painful and confusing times, “If you can’t see His hand trust His heart.”  It’s difficult; still, all these years later, it’s the only thing we can do.

A legacy is a kind of radiance that remains after we are no longer physically within reach.

In their young lives James, Ryan and Andrew left a sweet legacy, they radiated and will be remembered not just by how they died much too soon but by how they lived.  They loved sports and fishing with their Grandpa.  They loved each other, their friends, their family and their Lord…they shined.   

Tom Starr left a powerful spiritual legacy.  This Starr will shine forever in the hearts of those who will always love him.  A man’s true wealth can not be measured with a monetary scale but by the size of his heart and the impact he leaves behind.  Tom Starr was an extremely wealthy man.  Those who knew him will remember his clever one-liners, affectionately called, “Starrisms,” his heart the size of his beloved Texas, and his passion for what’s important…people and God and bringing the two together.

This Starr shines across the country and throughout the world by way of the missionaries he loved and sent out.  This Starr shined in our nation’s capital.  Senator Maria Cantwell’s office was so bombarded with calls pleading with her to ask the Coast Guard to resume its search that they called Betty to ask permission to fly the United States Flag over the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. to honor these four men lost at sea.  They then mailed the flag to Betty.

It’s seems a bit poetic that this passionate “fisher of men” was lost at sea.  But, take heart!  Knowing him as I did, I know in the depths of my being, that if each one of us could spend a few moments of time with him, he would put his arm around us, look at us with compassion, smile and say two things:

First he would say, “Lost?  I’m not lost; God never lost track of my grandsons and me.  We’re safe and happier than ever and if you know my Jesus we’ll be here to greet you with open arms when you come home.  I know you miss us but please comfort one other until we’re together again.  And don’t forget what I taught you…God is too loving to be unkind and too wise to make a mistake!”

And secondly, “Please don’t remember this last fishing trip as a tragic SeaHunt.  Because of Jesus, I want you to think of it as our Victory at Sea!”

As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.

Proverbs 27:19

I’m Sherry Lynn and I’m Just Say’n…

16 Comments

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    Gail Hawkins Posted August 31, 2013 11:51 pm

    I never got to meet Tom as I came to Valley Fourth after he was gone. Thank you for sharing his legacy. I sit her with tears reading this, but what a ministry he had. You have put his legacy in such beautiful words. I loved learning all these things about Tom Starr. What a man of God.

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    George Hippe Posted September 1, 2013 12:42 am

    Sherry, what a wonderful tribute to a man of God who is missed immensely. You made this old Hippe tear up as well. I was not too concerned upon initially hearing that Pastor Tom and the boys were missing. I was certain they were fine. Pastor Tom had a knack for getting out of challenging situations. Little did we know that by the time we had received word they could not be found, they were with the Lord. We lost them, but God did not. Heaven is certainly more inviting. We miss you, Pastor Tom and are looking forward to an incredible reunion. Thank you, Sherry.

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    Joy Posted September 1, 2013 3:47 am

    Thank you my precious friend for this beautiful tribute to our guys that left us in exchange for heaven! Oh how we miss them, but have hope of a grand reunion!
    Love you!
    ~joy

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    Kay Kinley Posted September 1, 2013 3:53 am

    Sherry. Thank you for expressing for all of us how we feel about this wonderful man of God. We knew Tom from his first days in Spokane. He was a man of prayer and always expected God to answer.
    Yes, he did care for people. An aside, I had just had my gall bladder out and at 6 a.m, the next day he came to see me in the hospital. I could have shot him.
    I was a mess but, he was so kind. Anyway, thank you again.

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    Sandy & Marty McNamara Posted September 1, 2013 4:05 am

    Your words touched our hearts as we remembered what Pastor Tom has meant in our life. Marty worked on many projects with Tom at the church and Pastor shared his dream for the church and the school. Those days are very precious in Marty’s memory. For me, Pastor Tom was always there for each and everyone of us, good days and challenging days. Memories always flow when I hear Victory in Jesus being sung. He not only touched lives but generations of his family are living their lives to honor our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I am sure our Lord greeted him with, Well Done My Good and Faithful Servant, Tom Starr.

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    Jewel Floch Posted September 1, 2013 9:10 am

    Ryan and Drew (Andrew’s) mom and dad here. Those days were the absolute worst of our lives, the day every parent fears but usually never has to go through. During those dark days we spent with loved ones around us, crying together, praying together, searching together. And all without Dad (Tom Starr) to walk through this with us; truly without our pastor to put his arm around us, pray with us, mourn with us, walk with us. But what we did have were the memories of how he had helped others walk through these dark days, the advice and thoughtful words he had shared with many as they walked through the “valley of the shadow of death” guiding us to fear no evil, to trust Him and although we couldn’t see His hand, to trust His heart.
    Many lives have been drastically changed because of the loss of our 4 guys, many now have the hope of eternal salvation, the joy in their hearts (our hearts) to know we will one day see them again, we will one day be reunited and that eternity is much longer than this life we are now living in, it’s, well, it’s forever!
    Our lives have changed forever. In 2009 we came to China to serve and love on orphaned children, not because we thought of adopting but because we weren’t finished loving on children and this was something we could do and
    we found more purpose and direction for our lives. Well, today is September 1st, 2013, just over 12 years since our boys, James and Dad died at sea. We have seen, and are seeing, the saddest day of our lives redeemed, along with 2 other dates changed from a sad memory to change the focus to a happy, more current memory. The first date, August 28, was redeemed one year ago when we found out that very day that we would be parents again, that we would have a daughter, a 10 year old (almost 11 now) named Elizabeth Marie! The second day was December 20th, Ryan’s 32nd birthday. We stood before the officer at the American Consulate and swore we would care for her as if she had been born to us. The 3rd date, September 3rd 2 days from now, Clay’s birthday and the day they found Drew’s body, will be our “Gotcha Day” (an adoption term) in Changsha China, being blessed with our second daughter, 8 year old Ruby Starr!
    Don’t you love the word “redemption?!” Never in our wildest dreams (and we’ve had some) would we have dreamed something like this! But God in His goodness, has blessed us with 2 beautiful Chinese daughters. When you can’t see His hand, trust His heart, please trust HIM! Proverbs 3:5 to 7. In our “own understanding” we couldn’t, and sometimes can’t, make sense of the turn in our life path on August 28th 2001. But our heads said trust Him before our hearts knew we could, and we have seen His heart and His hands in our lives. We are trusting Him to continue to paint the picture of our lives that He wants, we just plain aren’t very good artists! He redeemed us by adopting us as His children when we trusted in Him, He redeemed the lives of our daughters from abandonment when we adopted them, He redeemed their lives when they came to know Him as their savior and He has redeemed 3 bad days for us. Has He redeemed your life, given you hope for your future, for your eternal life? Oh, we hope so!

    • Avatar
      Katie Youngren Posted September 1, 2013 8:02 pm

      Bless you, Jewel!! I had a lovely chat with Esther at church today!! You are all in our thoughts this weekend especially… and you have another daughter??? Praise the Name of Jesus!!!! JOY!!!!

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      June Walter Posted September 5, 2013 9:49 pm

      Praise God even when we don’t understand. He is with us always.

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    Mike and Mary Jones Posted September 1, 2013 8:15 pm

    Thank you Sherry for writing this. It blessed our hearts, made us cry and caused us to remember how fortunate we were to have Pastor Tom as our pastor. We truly do look forward to seeing him again in heaven.

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    pat Danielson Posted September 1, 2013 10:21 pm

    Thank you Sherry for such beautiful tribute to Pastor Tom . I still miss him so very much and can’t imagine how much Betty and all the family miss him. Tom was such a man of God and was always there for everyone in need. I can’t wait to see him when I get to heaven. I read your tribute and shed some tears remembering our great Pastor Tom Thank you for taking the time to use the great gift that God has given you in writing this.

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    Marilyn Schlafmann Posted September 1, 2013 11:16 pm

    Sherry, you truly have a gift for remembering the important things, and the gift of communicating those things. We loved Pastor Tom, and many of the things you mentioned are memories we share. We look forward to seeing him and the ‘boys’ in heaven some day.

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    Jan Foland Posted September 2, 2013 6:34 am

    Pastor Tom carried the heart of the Father in every word and action…. He blessed my journey as a mother of a prodigal through the UGM… I read a story to the men in the Chapel that I had written and sketched (1998)through the long journey of separation from my daughter…. Tom was sitting in the front row… From that day forward a friendship was birthed that took me to the center of the heart of the Father’s heart for the lost at sea Prodigal. It was through this season in my life that we shared and HOPE was restored.
    As the years unfolded, my heart held onto HOPE! Through Tom’s actions to reach the lost at the Rainbow gathering, we reconnected….

    “How long Pastor Tom, how long? HOW long must a mother wait?” Tom’s words were the last marked words from the Father through him….before he set sail with his grandsons….”In His time Jan, God will make a way… BELIEVE and hold onto Jesus.”

    Today I hold that last e-mail memo as God’s A MAZE N’ reminder that in HIs time He does make all things possible. God is the ROCK STARR that birthed up a ministry on the streets called off the broadway in part because of Tom’s words from the Father. It was through this little “Tork” story that I found my way through the storm. Today, Tork is being published.
    Lives have been restored and my passion driven FAITH for the LOST at sea was fueled through Pastor STARR! Pastor Tom and his grandsons are no longer lost at sea but alive and waiting for the “great” reunion. He is alive, and because He LIVES, we can face tomorrow…. And with his encouraging words to me on that sad day of separation, I am walking out those words of encouragement spoken from my dear Brother Tom, “In HIs time Jan, in HIs time…He makes all things beautiful in His time.”

    Today, on this blessed Labor Day I send my love to the family as we seek the lost at sea knowing that Tom’s LOVE for the Father rekindled HOPE to remind us to GO…and reach out in the LOVE that called TOM….and his blessed grandsons.
    In HIs love,
    JAN FOLAND http://www.obfo-spokane.com

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    Penny Lancaster Posted September 3, 2013 12:55 am

    Sherry, you captured the essence of Pastor Tom Starr, one of the very first leaders in Spokane to encourage me in my moral activism by inviting me to speak at his church. I look forward to seeing him again with Jesus because it is true: “If you can’t see His hand trust His heart.” Thank you for using your amazing writing talent to spotlight such a wonderful man and family.

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    Clint Posted September 3, 2013 3:04 pm

    Nicely done, Sherry. Ten minutes ago, I did not know Tom. Now I do. You passed along the blessing that he was through the blessing of your words. Thank you!

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    Katie Youngren Posted November 13, 2013 6:03 pm

    Sherry, you are amazing!! This is such a beautiful tribute!! Clay’s Mama attends our church, and we occasionally get a visit from he and Jewel and their new little girl Elizabeth. What an amazing testimony of God’s grace and healing power in their lives!!! Thank you for this beautiful and timely piece. Love you, sister!!! xoxo

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    Scott Carlson Posted August 31, 2018 1:16 am

    Hey Mrs. Waldrip, what a great job you’ve done reminding us of our Pastor! As a kid growing up at Valley Fourth, I was very lucky to have such great men to learn from and look up to, Dwight, Rich, Don, Ken. However I don’t believe that any of those men would have been Pastors at Valley Fourth unless Tom would have been the Senior Pastor. Tom had a heart for kids, for youth, and he was never off limits to any of us! He was the reason that we had such a great church family back then. It’s often that I look back on those days of my childhood and remember just how great they really were, and I’m thankful every day for those days, for those times.
    There was a song that Tom had glued into the back of our hymnals , “ The Family of God” , and we sang it often. Looking back we truly were A Family Of God and very blessed to have Pastor Tom as our leader. Thank you for writing this.

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