John Gillespie’s vision for at-risk teens
By Roger Pitt
Rawhide Boys Ranch observed its 50th anniversary a few weeks ago – turning my personal clock back to my second year in New London for the Post-Crescent.
One of my early stories about Rawhide was also my first contact with Bart Starr, who led the Packers in 1966 to the first of back-to-back NFL-AFL Championships. It was named the Super Bowl three years later.
I met John Gillespie before Rawhide became more than the dream he and his wife Jan had about an ultimate use of the 700 acres of prime property fronting the Wolf River, down river from New London at Weiland’s Landing.
Center piece was the large lodge which would be the first group home, with John and Jan as house parents of the initial eight foster children.
There were many tales about the house, one being it gave boat access to the river, in the event feds or others made a quick escape necessary. The hand-carved decorations were visible evidence of skilled craftsmen, said to have been brought up from Chicago, did the unique wood work.
It was in this setting I sat with John and Bart Starr, listening to Gillespie’s vision to grow Rawhide into a multiple building facility to house dozens of boys.
A modest beginning became much greater than even Gillespie envisioned at that time. The number of boys increased tenfold from the beginning, to about 40, housed in multiple buildings.
Roger Steingraber, a native of New London, graduated high school in 1971 and attended school with several Rawhide boys.
“It is impressive what has been done there. It has excellent facilities including school and a gymnasium,” Steingraber said. “They have done a really good job.”
The lodge, a horse barn and another out building were all that occupied the area on my first visit in 1965.
I would get to know one of the first boys at the ranch, Dennis Green who spent five years at Rawhide and in New London schools. Until Rawhide, he had spent his first 12 years in and out of foster homes.
Jan Gillespie was an early advocate of horse therapy, helping the boys to deal with people and build responsibility. Rawhide offered developing work skills in addition to traditional classroom education.
Excess donations to rebuild a horse barn destroyed by fire, killing four horses, helped establish Rawhide’s Equine Assisted Program, utilizing therapeutic horseback riding, to improve communications and relationships.
My last story about Rawhide came near the end of my career, returning to my initial assignment covering the Waupaca County area.
Members of the About Face Service Corps – a Rawhide program focusing on conduct, self-discipline, hard work and service to others – were erecting a fence around the Waupaca County Sheriff’s vehicle storage area in Manawa.
Initially, many of those helping establish the program were volunteer police officers and social workers who sought better ways to deal with the boys encountered during their jobs.
Several Packers players, teammates of Starr, took advantage of his ties to Rawhide and gave it needed media exposure in its infancy, when it was still more an idea than reality.
One day, Steve Wright, an offensive tackle, and Allen Brown, a tight end, showed up on an off day for the fall bow hunting season. They were both backups on the initial Super Bowl team and had ties to the South graduating from Alabama and Mississippi, respectively.
It was most memorable because, unlike a Wisconsin boy, they had come prepared for the cold and Brown took pity, offering me a jacket to wear – one of only a few people of a size that would fit.
Starr, as spokesman and advocate, was vital in establishing the vehicle donation program that became a key revenue source to grow Rawhide.
Two automotive restoration buildings allow boys to develop skills to rehabilitate vehicles donated to Rawhide.
The mustard seed John Gillespie planted grew beyond his vision for the Rawhide grounds along the Wolf River, extending to other sites to help troubled youth.
Its first outpatient clinic opened in Green Bay in 2008. Two more clinics opened the next year, in Menasha and the other on the Rawhide Campus.