Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 1998; Page C01
THALIA, Tex.When Kenneth Starr was just a chubby little fellow growing up in small-town Texas, he learned early the consequences of bad behavior.
"Yes, indeed, I would spank him," says his 90-year-old mother, Vannie Starr. "He was spoiled, more or less, because he was the baby in the family. And it was up to me to get that out of him. I tried to teach him right from wrong."
Now, independent counsel Kenneth Winston Starr, 51, is bringing a strong air of moral rectitude, the legacy of a childhood as a conservative minister's son, to a job that has, in itself, become part of the controversy surrounding President Clinton. From the Whitewater tangle to the current scandal involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he has doggedly -- some say overzealously -- pursued the president with a determination that those who knew him as a youth say is entirely in keeping with his personality.
"Kenneth's like that -- when he starts something, he has to finish it," says his high school English and journalism teacher, Roberta Mahan, 80, of San Antonio. "I'm sure he has no stomach for what's going on now."
Starr may be variously viewed as a righteous avenger or a partisan tool of the Republican right, but the roots of what he is doing today can be found in the small communities and modest homes of his Texas childhood.
His parents started taking him to church when he was 2 1/2 weeks old, he has never smoked or drunk or been heard to curse and, even now, he still teaches Sunday school whenever he can in suburban Virginia. Those who knew him as a boy say they are not surprised at his national prominence. They remember him as a straight-A student involved in everything but athletics, possessing the necessary gravity to play Papa in the senior-class play "I Remember Mama," diligently polishing his shoes each night and harboring his own quiet political ambitions and dreams of finding success back East. He was never flashy, but he knew how to get what he wanted.
Like Clinton, he came from humble beginnings. His first home was here in this tiny town near the Red River and the Oklahoma border, so isolated and nondescript that most Texans are not even aware of its existence. (Author Larry McMurtry borrowed Thalia's name for the setting of his 1966 novel "The Last Picture Show," which was based on his hometown of Archer City, Tex.) His parents, plain-spoken people with clear-cut values, watched over him with a loving but unyielding eye, and drummed into him their view of how good people should behave.
Although Vannie Starr declines to say much about Clinton, she manages to convey both her opinion and what was imparted to her baby boy:
"Well, I don't think much of a man who would trifle on his wife," she says. "Kenneth was just not raised up to be familiar with anything like that. His daddy was not that kind of man."
Thalia, Tex., is surrounded by wheat fields and cow pastures, populated now mostly by older people who have a familial tie here, who left and came back to an old homestead, or who never left at all. This community of 100 people, about 15 miles from the Oklahoma line, has a spent look, many of its old buildings collapsing, streets unpaved and rutted with mud after a nighttime rain, yards cluttered with livestock pens and older cars. Years ago, it had a store, a high school and a post office. But now there is not even a place to buy a soft drink.
"You're not considered from here unless you've really lived here forever," says Lorrie Pring, owner of a beer, wine and liquor store a few miles outside Thalia. It came as a surprise to most people to learn such a famous person as Starr had once lived here, she says.
It is doubtful that Starr remembers much about Thalia. He was born up the road in the hospital in Vernon, Tex., on July 21, 1946, the youngest of three children. Sister Billie Jean, now a retired schoolteacher in Houston, was 16 years older; brother Jerry, a college instructor in Abilene, already was 6. Both their father, Willie, a barber who served as a substitute minister in the Church of Christ, and their mother hailed from the countryside near the east Texas town of Palestine; both were the children of farmers. By the time Kenneth entered elementary school, the family had moved to Centerville, population 800, not far from Palestine.
Little Kenneth was the darling of the family, the surprise late baby. He was a friendly child, his mother says, plump-cheeked and cute with blond curls and a big smile. His sister quickly overcame her initial teenage embarrassment at his arrival. She and her girlfriends would come visit from college in Abilene on weekends, and "pet him and make over him," Vannie Starr recalls. "She enjoyed him so much, she'd go out in the yard and cry when the weekend was over because she had to leave him."
Religion was central to the family's life. Members of the Church of Christ believe in the saving grace of baptism and are steeped in the New Testament teachings of Jesus -- the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Starr attended Sunday school each week and learned all the old Bible stories -- Joseph and his coat of many colors, Noah and the ark, the Sermon on the Mount.
At home, he was an indoor child, amusing himself with little made-up games. His mother recalls how he would play for hours, sitting on a stool next to his bed, moving wooden clothespins around. Once, fascinated, she asked him what it was all about. He only smiled in response. Her husband urged her to save the clothespins as a memory of his childhood, and she put them away in a box she has kept to this day, still mystified by their significance to the young boy. When he got older, she says, he enjoyed playing dominoes.
But his big brother Jerry also took him in hand.
"Jerry liked to get out and pitch balls," Vannie Starr says. "He'd say, 'Joe-Boy' -- that's what he called him for some reason -- 'Joe-Boy, let's go pitch some balls.' Joe-Boy wouldn't want to leave his little games, but Jerry would keep on with him till he went outside and played."
At school, he excelled without breaking a sweat. "I didn't have to help him with his lessons," his mother says. "We were real proud of his report cards."
And his conduct? "It's not that he was ugly, talking back or not minding or anything," she says. "But neither was he an angel."
By 1960, when Starr entered high school, the family had moved to a modest white frame house in southeast San Antonio, a neighborhood that still seems rural, with a fenced-in pasture across the street and farmhouse-type homes in the $40,000 range. Vannie Starr still lives there; Willie died of a heart attack in 1989, not long after the couple had celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
At Sam Houston High School, Ken Starr was, according to students in his class of about 300, a big man on campus. He was junior class president, senior class president and a member of the National Honor Society and the journalism club, Quill & Scroll. He was on the yearbook staff and a photographer for the school newspaper. Students voted him, not surprisingly, "Most Likely to Succeed."
It was the early 1960s; Vietnam was still a controlled conflict a world away and riots and unrest would come later. This was an era when good girls and boys comported themselves in a certain way. Neatness counted. The world was wide open and full of opportunity. Social life had an innocent quality.
"He was not a bit girl-crazy," says his mother. "He never did date girls to amount to anything. He was nice to all of them."
Gary Smith, his best friend, double-dated with Starr occasionally. They would go out for hamburgers at Jay's Drive-In, then take in a movie at the Majestic, an old-time grand theater with Aztec architecture and fake clouds that swirled across the ceiling.
"He was very reliable, a very loyal friend," says Smith, 51, now a professor at San Antonio College. "I remember we studied a lot together, for placement tests. We'd do the drills for vocabulary. One thing all the articles written about him misses is that he was a real playful person. I remember him laughing and joking. He was a real cutup."
A couple of times near the end of senior year, the two young men sat in a car having serious conversations about their futures.
"We would talk about going away to school," Smith recalls. "I don't remember him talking particularly about being a lawyer. The thing everybody gets wrong in all of this is that he's out to get someone. He has firm beliefs about what's honorable, what's right, and he's presenting those. He has a goal, his mind is set and he's going with that."
Roberta Mahan, the English teacher, recognized his potential. She urged him to go to school in the East, even though his mother wanted him to stay closer to home.
"I remember I told him to go where the action was, if he was going to be in politics," she says. "That's exactly how I put it: 'Go where the action is.' "
But first, there was something of a transitional period, two years at Harding University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Searcy, Ark., that in 1964 had about 1,800 students. There, Starr continued to rack up accomplishments: dean's list each of the four semesters he was there; a column he wrote for the college newspaper, The Bison, called "Starr Dust"; a seat on the student-government council; and, surprisingly, active membership in the Young Democrats.
During the summers, he sold Bibles door-to-door.
Ken Starr did go East, to George Washington University, to Duke University Law School. He clerked for then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger and then joined the Washington office of the Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm. Along the way, he married Alice Jean Mendell, a public relations executive, and together they had two daughters and a son. After serving as the youngest judge ever on the U.S. Court of Appeals and as President Bush's solicitor general, a special three-judge federal panel appointed him in August 1994 to investigate the Clintons' involvement in a failed Arkansas real estate development called Whitewater. It would have been hard to guess then what a high-profile job it would become.
But to his mother in the small white house in San Antonio, he is still her baby boy. She is proud of him, she worries about him, she wishes he did not have to work so hard or travel so much. But she does not seem overawed by her youngest child's achievements; in conversation, she often steers the talk toward her other son, Jerry, and his grandchildren. The storm of criticism Kenneth has received in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky case does not bother her, she said -- he has a job to do, and he will do it right. That, she said, is what she taught him.
Ever the dutiful son, he usually telephones her once a week -- although it's been Alice Starr who's been making the calls in the last few weeks -- and visits twice a year. They do not talk politics.
"I never ask him a direct question," says Vannie Starr. "I just hope things will get better soon. I want him to get out of it. I'll worry about him until he does."
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