Parents of teenage boys wonder what they did wrong when their sons fail in school, pick the wrong friends and their conduct brings the police to the door. The challenges of raising youth are not new, and with the growing lack of respect for authority they are getting worse. That is why the story of Rawhide Boys Ranch, one of the most successful juvenile rehabilitation centers in the country, is so heartening. For nearly five decades John and Jan Gillespie have used their philosophy of tough love to redirect the lives of teenage boys.
Their book, OUR 351 SONS: Developing Character, Leadership and Respect through Serving Others, recalls the lessons gained from their years of running Rawhide. It has become a Wisconsin institution, lauded by the likes of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Governor Scott Walker, and numerous other business and civic leaders. Yet for all its fame, it has always employed the same personal approach—in John's words, to “look for the deeper desires hidden inside a boy's heart and give him the training and motivation to reach his potential.”
Starting around a dining room table, John and Jan shaped the lives of wayward youths through simple common sense rules. Food was not passed without a “please.” The boys did their house and farm chores as soon as they came home from school. Then everyone had to put in an hour after dinner doing homework. They had to participate in projects helping others in the surrounding communities. Through these activities were channeled lessons that would transform the boy's lives as they received lots of attention and praise for their achievements. They learned from the staff and other boys how to act in an entirely new living situation where every boy could succeed.
These practical lessons are woven into a personal story that will embrace readers in its warmth. John and Jan barely had a dime to their name when Ray Carlson asked John to visit his 500-acre estate to see if he could hire John's company to design a subdivision plan to help sell the property. The land was located on the popular Wolf River, complete with a magnificent 27-room lodge. When John mentioned offhandedly that it would make a great home for needy teenage boys, Carlson instantly offered to sell the estate at half his asking price if it would be used for that purpose. In the weeks to follow John and Jan were able to set up a meeting with Bart Starr, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and his wife, Cherry. The Starr family's values and beliefs matched exactly with the plan the Gillespies laid out, and they gave their instant support. The Starrs' unflinching partnership would help Rawhide through its ups and downs for the next 50 years.
Then as now, the teenage boys sent to the ranch had a wide range of backgrounds, from seriously delinquent to very troubled, usually coming from dysfunctional homes without fathers. They experienced firsthand how a family can live together, eat together and work together, learning how to respect and encourage each other and most importantly the gratification on serving others. Hundreds of alumni have carried these values through their lives as solid, respectable husbands, parents and citizens. John and Jan have maintained close contact with dozens of the boys that lived with them.
All the boys were assigned duties, from cleaning up after dinner to taking care of Jan's stable of horses, to grounds maintenance, including cutting five acres of lawn, and the construction of new buildings. Over time, with donations of the lumber from old barns, an entire village was built, including other youth homes so that John and Jan could take in more boys, each living in small groups with house parents and support staff.
As Rawhide expanded, the boys would receive many other areas of practical training. Rawhide launched the first national appeal for donated cars, to be fixed and resold for ranch income. Mechanics were hired and a state-of-the-art auto repair shop and an auction building were erected. Within three years the ranch was receiving 5,000 cars, trucks, campers and boats annually. All were resold at dealer-only auctions after the staff and the boys worked on many of them.
A later addition to the ranch was Starr Academy. Since the boys at Rawhide were often several years behind their classmates, a program was set up whereby they could be taught in small classes in order to catch up. They alternate two weeks of schooling with two weeks of on-the-job training. That program was so successful the local school district now sends their at-risk students to the Academy.
A program called About-Face, which has a military structure and appearance but without the humiliation, provides teams of ten boys with staff assistance that provides community support. The teens learn teamwork, good work ethics and obedience as they work on tornado and flood cleanup, maintenance of local and state parks and assisting on building Habitat for Humanity homes.
Serving community needs was important at Rawhide from the start. 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 have responded to hundreds of fire calls. That fit with the Rawhide plan to give boys responsibilities of serving others unusual for their age.
Tough love, mutual respect, traditional family values, learning to accept authority, and especially serving others are some of the ingredients that make up the Rawhide experience. Yet this is more than a laundry list of good parenting ideas. At the heart of the book are the individual stories of how young men turned their lives around. In one example after another, the boys that come to Rawhide have realized their full potential. It is this blend of the struggles, victories, and humor that will make OUR 351 SONS a sure-fire hit among a wide range of readers.