My friend Dave Starr died on Tuesday at the well-kept Civic Park home in Flint where he and his wife, Judy, had lived since 1968. Dave had been fighting cancer, and it finally overwhelmed him.
Personally, it's hard to lose a friend. But I feel that Dave's passing is a bigger loss for Flint. He epitomized what is great about the city. And, yes, Dave still thought it was a great place, despite all the well-documented problems that afflict it. Dave was proud of his work, and he appended each of his emails with a line that summed up the dedication and endurance that defined him and the city where he lived most of his life: "Retired Shop Rat — 14,647 days in a GM Plant." Clearly, Dave was one of those people who always showed up. He was there, unfailingly, for his family, friends and neighbors. Life is not easy in Civic Park, but Dave never gave up. He never quit. And he never got bitter, even though no one would have blamed him if he had. I will miss him, and the hometown he loved will be a different place without him.
I met Dave for the first time in his backyard on a warm summer evening in 2009. He had gathered with his neighbors at dusk for a meeting of the Milbourne Avenue Block Club. Dave had set up a big industrial fan with an orange extension cord to chase away the humidity, and Judy served ice-cold lemonade. For a couple hours, the residents of the block talked about ways to combat blight, economic decline, and the weeds that looked more like trees springing up on the vacant lots that dotted the surrounding streets. We all had a good time. It was a welcome reminder that even though the national media seemed to have given up on Flint, many of the city's residents had not.
Although I'd grown up just a few blocks away on Bassett Place, I was a stranger to Dave that evening. I'd returned to Flint after living in San Francisco for more than a decade. I was a journalist working on a story and pursuing an ill-conceived plan to reconnect with my hometown by purchasing a house. I sensed that Dave thought I was a little nuts, but he was a kind, welcoming, trusting person with a great sense of humor. We were different in many ways, but we had a lot in common. We'd both grown up in the Catholic school system. I worked bingo with my mom in the St. Michael's cafeteria where Dave and Judy were married. We both loved Luigi's pizza. I became friends with the Starrs. They endured my endless visits and phone calls while I completed Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Dave even showed me how to make bullets and took me to a local shooting range. I managed to cut my hand on the gun, smear blood all over myself, and have an embarrassing anxiety attack, but Dave took it all in stride. After we left the range, he spread our targets out on the seat between us to reveal that most of the shots were close to the center, including mine. "You did good," he said, before offering me a Life Saver and launching into a great story about the time he shot an elephant gun and almost dislocated his shoulder.
The night I met Dave and Judy, it was impossible not to notice the major construction project underway in their backyard. I seriously thought Dave might be building a bomb shelter or some sort of panic room. It turned out that he was in the middle stages of creating a 3,000-gallon pond with a filtration system and a cascading waterfall. He'd been working on it since 2007 and planned to fill it with water lilies and other plants. He hadn't decided if he would stock it with koi or smaller, double-tailed wakin goldfish. "One of my neighbors suggested catfish," Dave said, smiling. "I think he's looking forward to a cookout or something. We may have to consider it if the economy keeps going like this."
His enthusiasm built as he detailed the work that was left to be done, but he finally paused as he surveyed the cement-block retaining wall, the deep hole, and the high mound of dirt near his garage. "I planned to get a lot done this summer, but this cancer thing might slow me down."
I asked how much the pond would cost from start to finish. He figured about $8,000. I tried not to look surprised. I wondered if it was more than the house was worth. Dave looked at me as if he knew what I was thinking.
"Some people might think we're old-fashioned or strange, but this is not just a house where we live. This is our home, and we're going to take care of it," he said. "You can either run away from your problems or you can stay and fight."
Dave's fight is over now. I hope that he's gone on to a better place, the kind of place the nuns told us about when we were both kids at St. Mike's. And I hope that all of us who care about dear old Flint follow Dave's example. Now is not the time to give up.
Dave Starr's obituary and funeral information is available here.