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Spokesman for cause

Founder Starr is Pan-Mass Challenge’s biggest wheel

PMC founder Billy Starr, 58, bikes up Mount Washington July 11; that night he threw out the first pitch at Fenway. PMC founder Billy Starr, 58, bikes up Mount Washington July 11; that night he threw out the first pitch at Fenway. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / July 29, 2009

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MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. - Billy Starr can’t help himself.

It’s not enough that the 58-year-old founder and executive director of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge is biking up Mount Washington in the morning and throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park in the evening. No, Starr can’t even have a 7 o’clock breakfast at the base of the mountain without trying to sweet talk another cyclist into participating in the 30th Pan-Mass Challenge Aug. 1 and 2 to raise money to cure cancer.

“He does not have the word ‘no’ in his vocabulary,’’ says Mike Andrews, chairman of the Jimmy Fund.

Since 1980, the Pan-Mass Challenge has raised more than $239 million. Last year, riders raised a record $35 million, 100 percent of which went directly to the Jimmy Fund, which raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It is among the most successful athletic events in the country.

Starr was always an athlete and a free spirit. He would bike from Bangor to Boston, or bushwhack trails in remote sections of New Hampshire naked. After college, he planned on climbing the Himalayas. Instead he discovered a dark family secret.

“It was an August day [in 1973],’’ says Starr. “I was playing in a tennis tournament. I came home, my dad was crying. I’d never seen my father cry. He told me ‘mom is gonna die.’ She had melanoma. My mother, she worked at the VA hospital with quadriplegics. She was a model, she was gorgeous.’’

Starr stayed home to help his family. “We all suffered,’’ he says.

Betty Starr died in December 1974 at age 49. Starr’s father, Milton, was never the same. Neither was Billy.

He organized a 400-mile hiking trip for four friends along the Appalachian Trail. He planned the whole thing: the route, the gear, the food - including shipping supplies to post offices along the way.

“It rained for eight straight days,’’ Starr recalls.

“We were having hypothermia every day,’’ he says. “Then this woman comes out of the woods from a hut [in Monson, Maine] with four cups of steaming coffee. The act of kindness was real. It was an easy thing to do, but it was magical. To me, she was an angel, ’cause I needed it. I needed help.’’

That vision stayed with him in his restlessness. Starr loved to find the road less traveled. He loved biking to Provincetown because it was “the end of the line.’’

And the beginning of a dream.

Humble beginnings
In 1980, Starr approached the Jimmy Fund and told officials he wanted to bike from one end of Massachusetts to the other to raise money to fight cancer.

“The Jimmy Fund said, ‘Good luck,’ ’’ says Starr with a laugh.

It was a different era. There were no bike-a-thons, and athletic fund-raisers were not a $1 billion industry.

“They said. ‘What’s your goal?’ ’’ Starr recalls. “I said, ‘To raise money.’ ’’

One woman replied. “Do you really think you’re better off doing that by yourself?’ I thought, she’s right. I’m going to put these people in a certain amount of discomfort, but I’m going to have to answer their needs.’’

Starr, then living at his father’s house in Newton, started handing out leaflets on the Charles River Bikeway. That September, he and 35 riders took off from a mall in Springfield.

“Everybody got lost, including myself,’’ he says. “I had fried clams for lunch, and I got diarrhea and ended up pretty sick after a 140-mile day one.’’

When they arrived in Provincetown, the ferry back to Boston got canceled. But Starr felt empowered by the other riders’ attitude.

“I’m hearing , ‘Next year we can improve on this.’ I thought, ‘There’s something I could build on.’ ’’

The riders raised $10,200, and struck a chord with people who felt totally helpless against cancer.

That was 56,000 riders ago. The Challenge is now a 192-mile bike-a-thon from Sturbridge to Provincetown featuring 5,200 cyclists from 36 states and eight countries, supported by 3,000 volunteers.

This year riders will consume 14,000 bags of trail mix, 9,800 hamburgers, 7,000 clif bars, 6,800 slices of pizza, 5,500 hot dogs, 3,000 bagels, 3,000 pounds of chicken, 1,600 loaves of bread, 1,400 pounds of pasta, 850 pounds of peanut butter, 500 pounds of sliced turkey, 500 pounds of sliced ham, 275 watermelons, and 140 kegs of beer.

The success of the Challenge is staggering. Each year the PMC raises more money than the previous one, with the totals more than doubling in the last five years. The average cyclist has been returning for seven years, numbers unheard of in the industry. PMC cyclists have ridden a total of 1.5 million miles. With no strings attached, the PMC brings in nearly half of all Jimmy Fund donations.

Asked the secret to his success, Starr shrugs.

“I think I’m giving them a form of expression to fight back to make a difference,’’ he says. “Funding cures for cancer is what we can do.’’

But the Wellesley native wishes everyone would pedal in the same direction in the name of a cure.

“There are systematic problems with how the academic institutions compete and not necessarily collaborate. How clinical trials are or aren’t financed.’’

Starr, who has ridden in all 29 PMC Challenges, concedes that 2009 may be the first year the PMC contributions shrink, largely because of the economy, but also with compassion fatigue as a factor.

“I can’t see giving up because of fatigue, because the bar hasn’t moved quickly enough,’’ he says.

But he almost did give up on the PMC a quarter century ago because of tragedy.

Overcoming tragedy
In 1984, 24-year old Michael Forbes died of head injuries after a fall in the PMC. He was wearing a leather helmet, according to Starr.

“He hit a soft shoulder of sand, and he flipped,’’ says Starr, who pedaled on the scene 10 minutes later. “It was bad luck. If he rotated another quarter-inch, he only separates his shoulder.’’

Starr, devastated, returned home only to hear an answering machine message from Forbes - a late registrant who said he was looking forward to meeting him. Starr broke down. Most of his staff quit, and the Jimmy Fund wouldn’t return his calls for two weeks.

Starr says he went to the wake despite the father blaming him for his son’s death.

“The whole thing was brutal,’’ he says.

But Starr pushed on, building an infrastructure so efficient that the Lance Armstrong Foundation studied it to see how they could raise more money.

Starr is known as a great organizer and salesman. On the web, he’s currently working on a “pyramid of good’’ to increase donations. But he’s also a innovative bill collector.

He clamped down on delinquents who promised large sums and then came up with excuses.

Each rider must raise at least $4,200 to ride from Stockbridge to Provincetown.

In 2003, Starr instituted an “early commitment policy’’ requiring a credit card to be charged in advance before a rider can be registered. It reduced delinquency from nearly 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

“There were no excuses,’’ he says. “I don’t care if you break your leg tomorrow. Of course we hope you ride, but if you cancel, you still owe the money. People think I am aggressive, and I guess I am, but I get the money.’’

Some say too much money.

His yearly salary is $460,000.

Money matters
Starr says none of his salary comes from the money raised by PMC riders. His salary, overhead, and expenses, are being underwritten and offset by sponsorship, registration fees, merchandising, and auxiliary income from special events.

“I have nothing to hide,’’ he says. “My board took it out of my hands, which is the way I want it. The board farms it out to two compensation experts.’’

Does he feel guilty that he makes that much money?

“No,’’ he says. “Should I? I worked 10 years alone. A year and a half without salary, three months living in a tent. Fifteen years at my father’s house. Ten years without medical benefits, 15 years without a retirement plan, 10 years until I hired my first person beside myself. You write me a check, 100 percent of that check gets donated to the Jimmy Fund.’’

Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, a two-time cancer survivor whose wife, Stacey, is a six-time PMC rider with the Red Sox’ “Team 9 ’’ contingent, says attacks against Starr are unfair.

“The amount of money he’s helped raise is mind boggling and not well known,’’ Lucchino says. “If someone with Billy Starr’s qualifications were in the private sector, he would be making multiples of what he apparently earns.’’

He has his fans
When Starr gets to Fenway, he works the crowd. He dons his original 1980 PMC T-shirt for the first pitch. The PMC logo is unveiled on the Green Monster and a parade of cancer survivors ride their bikes in from center field. In the stands there is a small, perky voice coming from near the Pesky Pole.

It’s Lindsey Kimball, 14, of Ayer, who has beaten cancer twice, through chemotherapy, a series of operations, and a spinal tap. She waves at Starr as if he’s just hit a walkoff home run.

“He writes to me,’’ she says, gushing. “It’s pretty cool. When I had my heart surgery, he wished me good luck and gave me some words of encouragement

“He really is a hero.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the route for the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge charity bike race was incorrect in a story in Wednesday’s Sports section. The route begins in Sturbridge and ends in Provincetown.

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