Ellen Freeman Roth                      

August 2, 2001

At Home with Billy Starr

There's just one room in Billy Starr's gracious Wellesley Hills home that's his and only his: a small storage room off the garage. That room holds the array of outdoor recreational equipment that has shaped his life. A photo of Billy in his 20s, skiing with backpack in Tuckerman's Ravine, gazes from the wall, keeping an easy vigil over the road bikes, mountain bike, cross-country skis, backpacks, and camping equipment lining the shelves, walls, and floors.

"This room is nostalgic for me," he muses. "My wife and daughters don't use this area. I don't think they want to be in here. This is my space." He points to another wall photo. "This is me and a climbing buddy who's been riding in the event for eight years."

The "event" is the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, an annual bicycle ride that has raised nearly $55 million for cancer research and care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is scheduled, again, for this weekend. Starr, 50, founded the Pan-Mass Challenge 22 years ago when he persuaded 36 bicyclists to take a 200-mile ride and raise money to combat cancer, which claimed his mother, his uncle, a cousin, and so many others. After that inaugural ride, which brought in $10,200, Starr told Dana-Farber's fund-raising arm, the Jimmy Fund, that he wanted to organize the ride annually. Now it's his full-time job.

This Saturday and Sunday, more than 3,200 riders, supported by 1,700 volunteers, 200 corporate donors of products and services, and more than 100,000 contributors, will sweep through 43 Massachusetts towns to net $13 million for Dana-Farber. Two-thirds of the cyclists will ride the original 192-mile, two-day route from Sturbridge to Provincetown. Others will cover routes between Wellesley and Bourne, created to increase rider capacity and offer route options.

"Our average cyclist is 40 years old," said Starr. "Our riders have busy lives, yet spend three months training and raising money for this event. I want riders to return year after year, so this has to fit into people's lives."

Starr's life and the PMC are so intertwined that at any given time, there's evidence of the event around his house, whether in conversations, notes scribbled on pads, or fellow PMCers. His wife, Meredith, has held key PMC staff positions for a decade, he said, "and I think everyone we know either rides, volunteers, or donates."

After a ride, Starr's fellow cyclists often hang around his house. The last house he and Meredith owned had an outdoor shower, and friends returning from a ride often showered there and stayed for dinner. Their current house offers Starr's riding buddies a different kind of incentive: The house sits atop a quarter-mile stretch of street that has a steeper grade than the average on Mount Washington, challenging pedalers to make one final push before parking their bikes.

Then everyone relaxes on the patio, a comfortable, quiet respite next to woodlands abutting Wellesley's extensive trail system. The Starrs designed their newly renovated house for casual entertaining.

"We planned this kitchen and family room space for easy movement between indoors and the patio," said Starr. "We love the outdoors, so summer or winter we're in and out of these doors. Our friends join us in the kitchen to help cook while the kids play." The Starrs have two children, Hannah, 3, and Sophia, almost 1.

"We lived in Wellesley on the other side of this trail system and found this house for sale when we were hiking," Starr said. "I hated the house. But Meredith's cousin, who's a builder, said we could transform the house to meet our needs and taste. And the land is priceless. We loved the location. Our yard connects to 4 miles of town and park land.

"We planted vegetable gardens in the back, something I've planned for 20 years. We have firewood cut and stacked in the corner. Right out my back door, I mountain bike and cross-country ski through my yard onto the trails. And we enjoy the land with the children. We led Hannah's preschool class, each child with a teddy bear in tow, on a half-mile teddy bear picnic hike on the trails."

Billy has a home office, but Meredith and his older daughter have appropriated it for computer games. "Meredith was supposed to have her own space, but she reneged on the deal," Billy teased. "So although I have the software capacity to work at home, I work out of the PMC office."

Starr also works from his mobile office, equipped with 21 gears and two wheels. "I always conduct business on my bike," he said. "I've had many inspirations while I ride. I used to carry a tape recorder while I pedaled."

After he and 3,500 fellow riders have invested substantial sweat equity this weekend, Starr will return his bike to the storage room off his garage, steal a few minutes to enjoy the tranquility of his patio, and head off to plan next year's PMC.