Clara Willoughby was born September 2, 1902, in Marshall, Texas. She was the great-granddaughter of James Harper Starr, secretary of the treasury for the Republic of Texas in 1839. Her maternal grandmother, Clara Clapp Starr, raised her after her parents — Ben and Clara (Starr) Pope — died during her early childhood.
She attended Whitis School in Austin and graduated from the University of Texas in 1923 with a B.A. degree. After graduation she married Ray W. Willoughby and moved to San Angelo, where the couple made their home and eventually became prominent ranchers and civic leaders. They had two children.
Clara was also a partner in the Starr Holding Company of Marshall, with interests in land, timber, banking, and oil. Her achievements included landmark improvements in child welfare and juvenile justice in Texas over a 50 period. During the Great Depression, when the infant mortality rate was especially high, she helped organize Tom Green County's first well-baby clinic. She secured citizen volunteers to operate the clinic, local doctors to contribute services, and free vitamins for families in need. Volunteers went into homes with donated milk, baby bottles, and a coffee can to demonstrate a simple and safe method for sterilizing infant formula. Another of her projects during the Great Depression was to organize the building of a Girl Scout headquarters in San Angelo on land donated by the city, with materials given by a local rancher, and through the labor of the Work Projects Administration.
In 1949, while Clara was chairman of the Tom Green County Child Welfare Board, she became concerned that there were no trained social workers to protect children placed in foster homes and to screen adoptive families. "Children are being placed like kittens and puppies," she told legislators, regents, and business leaders to persuade them that state funding was needed for the professional education of child welfare workers. The result of her efforts was the establishment of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Clara insisted upon the same high standards of professional services for delinquent children. Noting that state law required no training for juvenile probation officers, she and other leaders lobbied the Texas Legislature to establish a state commission to set standards and to provide professional training. In 1981, as a result, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission was established. Clara became a charter member of the new commission, and during her tenure, juvenile probation services were first extended to all of the state's 254 counties. From 1968 to 1985 she was appointed by five consecutive governors to serve on the Governor's Criminal Justice Advisory Board and on the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board.
During her years of service on these state boards, more than 5,000 grants were made to school districts, cities, counties, and private agencies to prevent juvenile delinquency and to provide shelter, counseling, education, and residential placement for juveniles referred to court.
Clara was strongly committed to the preservation of local history. She donated Maplecroft, her ancestral home in Marshall and surrounding land to the state. The Starr Family Home State Historic Site opened to the public in 1986. Some of the family heirlooms were donated to the University of Texas, where they are displayed in the Willoughby-Blake Room of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
Clara was honored with a special commendation by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 1984, in recognition of her distinguished service on behalf of children; a Centennial commencement convocation in her honor at the Graduate School of Social Work at UT Austin in 1983, in recognition of her contribution toward founding the school; election to the Hall of Honor of the Texas Corrections Association in 1986; and receipt of the Governor's Tourism Award in 1980, in recognition of her donation Maplecroft to the state.
Two youth homes have also been named in her honor: the Willoughby Youth Center in Marshall and the Texas Youth Commission's Willoughby House in Fort Worth. In 1984 her children endowed the Willoughby Centennial Professorship in Criminal Justice at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, in honor of their mother's public service in that field. The Willoughby Centennial Professorship in Child Welfare is also endowed in her name at the School of Social Work. Clara died in San Angelo on August 3, 1985.
The Starr Family Home State Historic Site is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 407 West Travis Street. Download the visitors guide and learn more at www.visitstarrfamilyhome.com or call (903) 935-3044 for more information.
Excerpts are from the Texas State Historical Association Handbook.