Bill Davies remembers the laughter spreading throughout STAR House during the more than 25 years he spent his Sunday evenings at the Alcoholics Anonymous-based treatment center at 212 N. Fifth Ave. in Rome.
“I have a lot of wonderful memories of people telling their stories and hearing of their successes and their religious pilgrimages,” said Davies, founder of the William S. Davies Homeless Shelters and longtime member of First Baptist Church of Rome. “I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. I loved every minute of it.”
Such sweet sounds in the 48-year-old facility housing up to 25 people coming out of detox have now gone silent with the impending sale of the old STAR House building. But Davies and other Rome residents who visited the guests over the years will always keep their memories close to their hearts.
It was WWII veteran and fellow First Baptist member Harold Storey who first sparked Davies’ interest in the weekly sojourns to STAR House, starting in the early 1990s.
Storey, now 97, had come to know Floyd County Superior Court Judge Richard Lee “Dicky” Starnes Jr. — the inspiration for STAR House — as a teenager in his First Baptist Sunday School class back in 1951.
“Dicky was a lot of fun,” he recalled of the spunky 16-year-old. “His two favorite things were softball and playing the piano.”
As chairman of the local March of Dimes at the time, Storey was working hard with others in the community to combat the polio epidemic sweeping through the county.
Of the 27 local cases, he was shocked to find out Starnes was one of those stricken with the contagious virus that affects spinal nerve cells, leaving him paralyzed.
“I was very distressed to learn Dicky Starnes had contracted polio,” said Storey, who had his own brush with death during the Battle of the Bulge when a German soldier shot him in the neck. “I went to see him while he was in an iron lung at his home for about a year.”
Though confined to a wheelchair, Starnes never gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer and did just that, eventually becoming a judge who advocated for rehab services for those struggling with alcohol dependency as they were released from jail into the community.
When Starnes’ life was cut short at the age of 35 in 1970, his family established a foundation and board of directors in his name that was used to open STAR House in 1971.
With the help of the United Way of Rome-Floyd County, the facility flourished for years under the leadership of Executive Director Wayne Smithson, Dicky Starnes Board Chair John Burnes said recently.
During that time — before the nonprofit began to struggle financially due to the changing nature of substance misuse — Storey and Davies got to know many of its beneficiaries during their weekly dinners there.
One of them was a man named David Guinn, whose 10-year-old son Harley would visit every other weekend.
“I remember Mr. Storey doing Bible study on Sundays,” Harley Guinn, now 25, said Saturday from his East Coast home. “There were really good people there and they were the reason he was able to get sober.”
His father’s love of vodka and his inability to hold a job led to his parents’ divorce, said Harley, a U.S. Army staff sergeant.
“He had struggled a lot before going to STAR House,” he said, adding that after about six months in the STAR House program, his dad was able to get some construction work on Rome’s Clock Tower and even did some restoration work on Storey’s home, built in 1953.
He eventually started his own construction company, David Guinn Contracting, and hired quite a few STAR House guests over the years.
Guinn said after years of successfully staying clean and keeping up his contracting work in Texas and overseas, liver cancer finally claimed his father’s life recently.
Storey said Saturday he is grateful Harley Guinn stays in touch with him and even comes to visit him every now and then when he’s in the area.
Davies said one success story he holds dear involves a man known only as Donny.
“Donny landed at STAR House with everything he owned in a bag under his arm,” Davies recalled. “He’d been in a couple of jails and his marriage had broken up. He asked me if I thought his life was worth saving and I told him there was no question about that.”
Donny had two college degrees and had worked as a federal bank examiner before his life unraveled through alcohol misuse.
“We got him a job in West Rome washing cars in the winter and he eventually managed to get back on his feet and moved up to being a bank teller in another town,” Davies said. “He finally became the president of two different banks and ended up owning his own loan company.”
Donny continued to check in with Davies every Friday, letting him know he was still clean and sober.
One of those calls came with bad news. Donny told him he had cancer.
“Finally, a Friday passed when I didn’t hear from him,” Davies said, stopping to control his tears. “He was gone.”
The ordained Baptist minister got great comfort in knowing Donny had found himself again through his time at STAR House.
“That’s why we do this kind of work,” Davies said. “We were always running into former STAR House guests who became tradesmen, businessmen, salesmen and whatnot. We’d just smile at each other and we knew everything was OK.”