By Joel Hall
Terrell Starr, a statesman who spent a lifetime working on behalf of the Southern Crescent, has died at the age of 83. The Forest Park native, who represented Georgia's 44th Senate District for 19 consecutive terms, succumbed to medical complications on Sunday afternoon at Emory University Hospital.
According to family members, Starr was hospitalized around 7 p.m., Saturday, due to a ruptured stomach ulcer. Starr's heart gave out on Sunday afternoon, after three-and-a-half hours of emergency surgery the previous night.
"It was sudden," said Terry Starr, 56, son of the elder Starr and president of the Starr Insurance Agency in Forest Park. "He had surgery to replace a heart valve about eight months ago ... he was recovering well from that.
"Everybody is handling it very well," he continued. "His life's ministry was through public service. We have full assurance, and faith, that he is with the Lord and we find comfort in that."
Terrell Starr was first elected to the state Senate from the 44th District in 1968. During his 38-year career as a state lawmaker, he crafted legislation that reshaped Georgia's public education system.
The Adequate Program for Education in Georgia, which he authored, guided the state's education program for 15 years, provided funds to support vocational education, reduced class sizes, and evenly divided funding among school districts. The Quality Basic Education Act, which he co-authored, revolutionized Georgia's education system and led to the establishment of a statewide basic curriculum.
Terrell Starr served in leadership positions on several committees in the Senate, including those as chairman of the Senate appropriations, education, ethics, finance, and public utilities and transportation committees. He also was floor leader under former Gov. George Busbee and Senate president pro tempore from 1999 to 2002. He served under seven governors.
Along with Bill Lee, another Forest Park native, who served 42 consecutive years in the House of Representatives, Terrell Starr was instrumental in persuading the Georgia Board of Regents to choose Morrow as the site of Clayton Junior College, which today is Clayton State University.
Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, described Terrell Starr as a legend in the Senate, who focused on helping average citizens. As a lobbyist with the Georgia Association of Educators for 18 years, she said she has an intimate knowledge of his efforts to improve education throughout the Southern Crescent and the state.
"He served at a point in time when much was accomplished for public education in the state of Georgia," Pippin said. "If it was improvement of class sizes, full-time kindergartens, rewriting of the entire education law, employment benefits for teachers ... his name was on that legislation. If we had a quarter for every meeting that Starr had to sit through for Georgia citizens, we could probably all retire. He was an advocate for the average citizen and the average taxpayer."
Pippin said Terrell Starr wielded considerable power in the Senate, but remained humble and responsive to the needs of individuals.
"Sen. Starr, Bill Lee, and other members of the Clayton County delegation, that was the Rat Pack of the Legislature," Pippin said. "They were amazingly strong. Everyone knew that if they wanted to get something passed, you needed to get the support of the Clayton County delegation.
"He was a very important legislator, but he always had time to talk to everybody," she added. "That's a great characteristic for a lawmaker to have."
Jane Kidd, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, joined the House in 2005, just a year before Terrell Starr retired from the Senate in 2006. While their paths barely crossed, Kidd, whose father is former Gov. Ernest Vandiver, said Terrell Starr's reputation preceded him.
"He was one of those true public servants who truly cared for his constituents," said Kidd. "He was an expert on the budgeting process, one of the few that could be called an expert. Everybody went to him with their ideas on appropriations and for advice on how to get something in the budget that was important for their constituents.
"Some of the biggest advances in Georgia were made in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s," she added. "His family can be extremely proud that he was a part of that."
While Terrell Starr spent much of his time advocating for Clayton and Henry counties at the state Capitol, Forest Park Mayor Corine Deyton said he was extremely dedicated to the Forest Park community. Starr Park, the city's largest public park, is one of several structures in the county that bear his name, and for more than 60 years, he had been a faithful member of Forest Park First Baptist Church, she said.
"He was a friend of mine and he was a friend of the city," Deyton said. "I went to church with him and have known him for a long time. He contributed his life to the county ... we're just grateful for what he did for us."
Benjamin Starr, 27, Terrell Starr's grandson, works as an agent along with his brother, Joseph, at the Starr Insurance Agency, which his grandfather started in 1957. He said his grandfather was never interested in accolades, but in helping people with nowhere else to turn.
"He demonstrated his values and beliefs by helping other people," Benjamin Starr said. "He was really passionate about it. That's why he stayed in it for so long. He really found joy in helping people."
Terrell Starr is also survived by his wife of 64 years, Celeste; daughter, JoAnn, and several grandchildren.
Visitation services will take place today from 5 to 8 p.m., at Forest Park First Baptist Church, 634 Main Street in Forest Park. Funeral services will take place at the church on Wednesday, at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that contributions be made to the church, or to a charity of choice.