First housemother influenced hundreds of boys
By Scott Bellile
Rawhide Boys Ranch co-founder Jan Gillespie may no longer be alive, but she spent more than half of her life watching her organization flourish.
Gillespie died Jan. 25 at the age of 82. She founded the ranch in 1965 with her husband John, who was by her side at the time of her death.
She died of natural causes, likely from a cold she was fighting in her final days, Rawhide Executive Director John Solberg said.
“She’s really a person with a deep and binding legacy,” Solberg said, adding there were teary eyes all around the office last week.
Jan and John Gillespie together elevated Rawhide to a nationally recognized non-profit. Located southwest of New London along the Wolf River toward Fremont, Rawhide provides faith-based residential care to teen boys as an alternative to juvenile corrections.
Solberg described Gillespie as “a confident woman who loved unconditionally and was extremely selfless in the way she really poured herself out and gave her life to support at-risk boys from all over the state of Wisconsin.”
Between 1965 and 1992, Gillespie served as a housemother to more than 350 boys ages 13-18.
“Her impact on the community and state of Wisconsin was greatly valued by the hundreds of youth she had under her care while being a housemother at Rawhide for over 27 years,” said Scott Sawinski, spokesman for Rawhide.
The family living model Jan Gillespie pioneered continues today. Houseparent couples live in each youth home to provide a supervised family living structure.
A news release from Rawhide stated, “Jan would frequently say about the boys at Rawhide she parented, ‘they’re like your children and even though they weren’t born into your family, you treat them like your children and you love them unconditionally.’”
Gillespie’s model behavior passed down to the Rawhide residents who later raised children of their own, Solberg said.
Gillespie was also known for her love of horses. She would pair up a youth with a horse and give him the responsibility to care for that horse.
Rawhide alum David Claus was paired with “Smokey.” He credited his relationships with Smokey and the Gillespies with steering his life toward a new path during his years at the ranch in the 1970s.
Two months ago, Claus wrote, recorded and released a blues song titled “I’m a Rawhide Guy.” His piece lauds John and Jan Gillespie for devoting their lives to helping individuals like him become better men.
“Because of John and Jan I’m the man I wanna be; I may have left the ranch but Rawhide never left me,” Claus sang.
The idea for Rawhide formed more than 50 years ago after 13-year-old Jerry Monson approached the Gillespies, who were Sunday school teachers at church. He told them of his home situation. The couple welcomed him into their Appleton home for what amounted to two years. They later took in Monson’s friend who too experienced hardship.
The Gillespies realized foster-parenting was their calling, but they needed a larger facility and outside funding if they were to take in more boys. They envisioned a full-time, non-profit home and summer camp somewhere remote.
In an August 1965 letter to the Rawhide Board of Directors, John Gillespie suggested the name of Rawhide, Inc.: “It is short, has a Western sound, and implys (sic) toughness. It seems to be a name that will create interest because of its vague meaning … The dictionary defines Rawhide as, untanned hide. Might be a lot of meaning to that.”
During the planning stages, a newspaper article declared: “It is a type of foster home, believed to be unlike any other in the United States. Its development is being watched by State and Federal officials.”
The public and donors caught on. A year after Rawhide’s founding, John Gillespie told the board in a January 1966 letter the “publicity has been tremendous.”
Rawhide credits Jan Gillespie with helping John find its celebrity spokesperson. A hesitant John couldn’t convince himself to cold-call then-Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr to ask for support.
Jan asked John, “How do you know if you don’t try?”
Her coaxing paid off. Among his early contributions, Starr chaired the ranch’s first fund drive in 1966. Following the Packers’ Super Bowl II victory in 1968, Super Bowl MVP Starr gave away the Chevrolet Corvette he was awarded during a telethon drawing that amassed 45,000 entries.
Bart Starr and wife Cherry never abandoned their support. Their efforts along with the Gillespies’ grew the campus from one home for seven to 10 boys to seven houses that together hold 40 to 50 boys.
After Jan Gillespie’s retirement in 1992, she and John took on public relations and fundraising duties until retiring in 2000. In the years since, they continued to visit the boys and attend the fish fry.
Besides seven youth homes, the 600-plus-acre ranch contains Starr Academy, an accredited private high school, a mental health outpatient clinic and job-training facilities.
Gillespie’s funeral took place Monday, Jan. 30 at Appleton Alliance Church. A memorial to Jan Gillespie was established to construct an eighth home on the Rawhide campus. Contributions can be made online at www.rawhide.org or mailed to: Rawhide c/o Jan Gillespie Memorial, E7475 Rawhide Road, New London, WI 54961.