Deacon Bob Starr is a guy who takes risks. Throughout his life, he hasn’t been afraid to go the unconventional route.
Born in Pittsburgh, he flaunts his Steeler gear at his parish, St. Mary by the Lake, Racine, even when they play the Packers.
“I go so far as to wear my Steelers’ T-shirt whenever we go to church when they’re playing Green Bay,” Deacon Bob said. “It makes for some good times.”
But as he sees it, it’s his job to stir the emotions of people he encounters.
As a teenager in 1965, while still in high school at Holy Innocents in a suburb of Pittsburgh, he enlisted in the Navy to feel “freedom” for the first time.
When the Vietnam War escalated in the late 1960s, he volunteered to go as a medic assigned to a Marine unit, but in a class of 27 students, he was one of seven who wasn’t sent to Vietnam.
“At the time I felt that I wasn’t serving my country or the military the way I wanted to,” he said. “I was really upset at first that they didn’t send me to Vietnam…. I look back and go ‘that’s not where God wanted me at the time. He wanted me somewhere else.’”
He went to dental school in the Navy and served as a dental technician making prosthetic teeth for sailors.
Biggest risk came early in career
Early in his military career he took one of his biggest risks.
In 1967, he was stationed in San Diego when he met his very soon-to-be wife Lin, who, having just finished boot camp, was also in San Diego for basic dental technology.
“She went to a restaurant that I frequented all the time,” Deacon Bob said. “I came in like I owned the place.”
Lin remembers it like it just happened.
“He had this aura about him,” Lin said. “When he walked in the door – this sounds so corny and I don’t usually tell people – it was like he had this aura about him. He walked in. He shut the door and he turned around and smiled at me, and it was like I just knew.”
His confidence and charisma won her over immediately.
“She was determined at that point that we were going to date,” he said.
They began dating at the end of September 1967 and by November they were engaged.
“She asked me 19 times to marry her,” he said, before he said yes.
Lin confirmed the number of proposals.
“I asked him to marry me that night and he said, ‘I’m not the kind of guy that gets married,’ and I said, ‘Well, you haven’t met me. I’m not the kind of gal that takes no for an answer,’” she said. “I wore him down … I asked him 19 consecutive days.”
Wedding bells south of border
They planned to go to Las Vegas to get married but instead went south of the border.
“Our friends dumped us in a car and we drove down to Tijuana, Mexico, and we got married in Mexico,” he said. “After we were married, I had received my orders to the USS America and so I ended up having to leave San Diego about a week or two later.”
At the time, the USS America was stationed in Norfolk, Va. Deacon Bob worked to have his new wife reassigned to complete her training where he was.
“By the time she got to Norfolk my ship had deployed for Westpac (in Vietnam),” Deacon Bob said. “I didn’t get back to Norfolk until October, November 1968 … so we were separated for almost 13 months after we were married.”
In 1969, Deacon Bob and Lin had their marriage officially recognized by the church through the military ordinariate of the United States.
“We even went to marriage preparation classes,” Deacon Bob said, adding his parents came down to witness the blessing.
Unconditional love keeps couple together
Extended separation during marriage, especially early on, could have been enough to end the relationship. And Deacon Bob said they came close to that.
“In the first 15 years of our marriage, we were at the point of signing papers for a divorce three different times … when it came time to do that signature, we couldn’t do it,” he said. “We couldn’t do it because of the foundation our parents put into us through our Catholic upbringing. We firmly believe what God joined together, you’re not supposed to separate it.”
Before meeting Bob, Lin said she had a difficult childhood, which contributed to their marriage problems.
“I was the one asking (for a divorce),” she said. “I thought he deserved somebody better than me. I honestly thought he deserved someone who wasn’t screwed up from birth.”
Lin described herself back then as a “shipwreck.”
“He stuck to me like glue,” she said. “Who does that?”
She said she “kept trying to shake him,” but he wouldn’t leave.
“I’ve never had unconditional love; it was profound,” Lin said.
Health scares prompt return to church
They worked out their differences, but it wasn’t until circumstances with their two sons that they fully returned to their faith.
“We were Catholics in heart, the way we thought and the way we talked, but we weren’t really practicing,” he said.
First, their younger son Kevin, now 42, suffered a severe grease burn on a small percentage of his body.
“It was enough to scare us,” Deacon Bob said.
Then, while Deacon Bob was stationed in Hawaii, and his family was living in Connecticut, his older son, Robert, now 43, contracted spinal meningitis.
“I got a phone call saying if I wanted to see him alive, I better come home now,” said Deacon Bob. “When I first got that word, I almost collapsed on the floor.”
He was at his son’s side a day and a half later. His son would eventually recover, but the health scare shook the family and brought them back to the church.
After eight years of serving on ships along the upper northeast, Deacon Bob was offered a job, with a pay raise, at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. Although they wavered, Deacon Bob and Lin accepted the position.
There he rose through the ranks to become master chief of the dental center, and was acting command master chief of the Great Lakes Naval Center for a few weeks.
“That made me feel really good that they thought that much of me,” he said. He retired from active duty in 1995.
‘You should be a deacon’
During their time at Great Lakes, Deacon Bob and Lin were active in local Catholic parishes. Parishioners would approach Bob and say things like, “You should be a deacon.” But he never thought much of it until Lin told him what they meant.
“Finally, one day I said, ‘Robert, you’re not hearing what they’re telling you,’” Lin said. “For 12 years they’ve been telling you they want to you to be their deacon.”
Deacon Bob was shocked.
“When she told me that, it really opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t listening to the community,” Deacon Bob said.
But becoming a deacon while serving in the military is difficult as the Archdiocese of the Military Services does not have a deacon formation program. But a priest – a former Vietnam Army chaplain – at St. Dismas Parish, Waukegan, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, helped with the process.
After finishing the diaconate program, he was ordained a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2003 and served three years at St. Dismas. The couple moved to Racine in 2004 and in 2007, he was appointed to ministry at St. Mary Parish by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
‘The Chaplain’ emerges
While the couple was involved in diaconate training, their son Robert got involved with an activity of his own: World War II re-enactments. He recruited Lin to be a re-enactor, and when Deacon Bob attended an event in Rockford, he, too, was intrigued and became a chaplain of a unit.
Having researched what chaplains did during World War II, Deacon Bob, affiliated with the 82nd airborne unit during events, would hold prayer services. People started referring to him as “The Chaplain.”
“People started turning to me for ministry also,” he said. “The skills I learned through the diaconate program I was able to put to use while I was there, actually doing ministry. And that’s kind of what it turned into – a ministry all of its own.”
Years ago at an event a female spectator was told her brother died suddenly.
“She was just blown away and she just needed somebody to talk to. She didn’t feel comfortable talking to anybody else but she came straight to the church,” Deacon Bob said. “I worked with her for about two hours … luckily the Holy Spirit guided me through to help her identify the different things that she needed to do.”
Deacon Bob said there have been numerous times when people have come to him at re-enactment events to talk about something deep inside them.
“They see me as a chaplain,” he said. “And if you’re in the military, and you’re having problems, you turn to the chaplain.”
Except he wasn’t living up to the role as an airborne chaplain. He hadn’t jumped out of a plane yet.
“The only way to experience jumping out of a plane is to do it,” he said.
Chaplain goes airborne
Lin was pushing him, at age 65, to go through the training.
“I told him if you truly want to be a World War II chaplain, and you truly want to go out there and represent these fine men, then you don’t put those wings on your chest unless you’ve earned them,” Lin said.
The training took place in Frederick, Okla. His first time through the exercises, he injured himself. The second time he went through the program and completed five necessary jumps.
“There is no way you can describe what it’s like to jump out of an airplane going at 120 mph in one direction, and jumping out and feeling like as though you’re turning ass over tea cups,” he said. “It’s a total shock to the system.”
Their unit jumps at around 1,500 feet.
“It takes almost four seconds and then your chute will open,” Deacon Bob said, adding at that point the jumper has already fallen about 400 feet. “If your chute doesn’t open, you may have 10 seconds before you hit the ground.”
When he graduated from the program, Deacon Bob was the oldest of the group.
One thing Deacon Bob doesn’t have to worry about on days he jumps, is a nervous wife.
“He’s in God’s hands,” Lin said. “When he jumps out of a plane, why is he different from Peter stepping out of a boat? Peter stepped out of the boat and took Christ’s hand and walked on water.”
As far as she’s concerned, he needs to “walk the talk.”
“How can you deny the presence of God when he has that kind of impact,” she said. “And he’s had that impact on us the day (Bob) walked into that restaurant and he looked at me and he smiled, and I said, ‘That’s him. That’s the one.” Ricardo Torres