It’s fitting that John Gillespie is at a car show this weekend telling the decades-long story of how he and his wife Jan raised hundreds of kids whose families couldn’t or wouldn’t raise them.
While the Gillespies and the boys who became men while living at the Rawhide Ranch are the center of the story told in Gillespie’s new book, “Our 351 Sons,” cars were kind of important in the organization’s survival.
One car, in particular, made the ranch for boys a reality.
The Gillespies were already foster parents in the mid-1960s when John Gillespie made a work-related trip to the property that would become the ranch, which was for sale. When Gillespie noted that the area would be a good place for a big foster home/ranch, the owner offered to sell – but the Gillespies didn’t have the money to buy it.
Gillespie needed some help – and he turned to the guy who was probably the most famous man in Wisconsin at the time, Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, who had just led the team to its third straight NFL title. At wife Jan’s urging, Gillespie cold-called him.
Starr invited the Gillespies to his house, where they showed Starr and his wife Cherry their vision for the Rawhide Ranch.
Longtime Packers beat writer and author Rob Reischel tells the story in his book, “Leaders of the Pack:”
“Starr earned a shiny red 1968 Corvette for being named MVP in Green Bay’s decisive 33-14 triumph over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II. ‘Rawhide was in tough shape financially in the early years,’ Gillespie said. ‘Bart donated that Corvette for our raffle, which took in $40,000 and kept us going.’”
So while Gillespie will hit up farmers markets around Wisconsin this summer, from Oshkosh to Neenah on his book tour, his appearance promoting the book this weekend at the Iola Car Show fits right in with the story of the ranch.
Starr – and cars – would continue to help the ranch over the years. Gillespie eventually had the idea to raise money through taking cars as donations. Starr appeared in TV commercials that ran around Wisconsin for years urging people to donate their vehicles to the Rawhide Ranch. Within a few years of starting that program, the ranch was receiving thousands of cars, trucks and boats a year.
I learned about Gillespie and the Rawhide Ranch from John’s grandson, Reagan Gillespie, who works for LedeTree, along with a couple other of his family members. The ranch doesn’t have any affiliation with the company, though, other than that family connection, and LedeTree isn’t involved in the sale of the book.
But the ranch seemed to me to be the kind of organization I often like to write about – run by people who see a problem to be solved and take it on. It’s certainly made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of “kids,” many of them now men heading into senior citizenship.
The ranch has also been an important part of the community, beyond just raising so many foster kids.
“Serving community needs was important at Rawhide from the beginning,” says the “Our 351 Sons” website. “There was no fire department in the township, so with John’s fire training and experience, the ranch set one up. Local fire departments and the Pierce Fire Equipment Company donated close to $250,000 of trucks and equipment. Under strict safety rules the ranch staff and boys responded to a few dozen fire calls annually. That fit with the Rawhide plan to give boys responsibilities and experience in serving others, which was unusual for their age.”