Home-builder, Renaissance man Starkweather dies at 88

  • Contributed Photo— Contributed Photo—

  • Llan Starkweather Contributed Photo—

  • A memorial service for Llan Starkweather at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett on Sunday, June 17, 2018. Contributed Photo/Robbie Leppzer—

  • The “Conch House,” built by Llan Starkweather, in Montague. Contributed Photo

  • A painting by Llan Starkweather Contributed Photo—

  • A section of the temple at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, which was built by Llan Starkweather, that didn't burn in a fire that destroyed the rest of the building. Contributed Photo/Robbie Leppzer—

  • Alia Starkweather sits in her Belchertown home Friday, June 15 ,2018. On the table in front of her is a sculpture made by Llan Starkweather, and a draft of his unfinished obituary. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • A wooden sculpture made by Llan Starkweather. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Mourners sit in a circle in front of the Peace Pagoda in Leverett during a memorial service for Llan Starkweather, Sunday, June 17, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Mourners sit in a circle in front of the Peace Pagoda in Leverett during a memorial service for Llan Starkweather, Sunday, June 17, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Llan Starkweather Contributed photo—

  • Llan Starkweather with Margaret Ellen Starkweather. Contributed photo—

  • Alia Starkweather, right, reads to Llan Starkweather, left, at Charlene Manor Extended Care in Greenfield. Contributed photo—

  • A temple at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, which burned down soon after it was built, designed by Llan Starkweather. Contributed photo—

  • A cabin built and designed by Llan Starkweather in Pelham. Contributed photo—

Published: 6/17/2018 11:58:35 PM

LEVERETT — He was registrar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for 25 years, and wrote original code for the school’s student class scheduling system in the 1960s, but never received high recognition for his groundbreaking work.

Born William Starkweather in Newton on Nov. 17, 1929, Llan Starkweather died of cancer just after 4 a.m. Friday at 88 years old. Before moving into Charlene Manor Extended Care in Greenfield, he was living at Colonial Village in Amherst. His legacy continues on in more than a dozen original houses, which he designed and built without formal construction training, self-published books, artwork of every form, from jewelry to paintings, and computer code.

“From what I understand, that algorithm stayed a part of the system for a very long time,” said Margaret Ellen Starkweather, Llan Starkweather’s daughter fhis first wife, Emily Bliss Rideout. She remembers visiting him at work in the Whitmore Building “when the computer was as big as a room, spitting out punch cards,”

Educationally, Llan Starkweather, who served as a German translator in the Army before going to college, received a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and dreamed of being a museum curator, but instead took a job as assistant registrar right after he graduated.

Soon, he became registrar, and with the advent of computer technology, Starkweather saw an opportunity. He earned a master’s degree in computer science from the Amherst university, and designed and implemented one of the first computer systems that allowed students to register for classes online.

However, he became disenchanted with the university, by what he perceived as a backward change in its progressive direction, and retired with a small pension.

“He went through a lot of changes, and he really was, at some level, disgusted by what was happening at the university,” Margaret Ellen Starkweather recalled.

 In formal retirement, her father invested his time into building homes. The first, at 66 Hills Road in Amherst, he completed in 1963 “back when Wildwood School was a cow pasture,” she said.

Those who knew Llan Starkweather describe him as a Renaissance man, entirely self-taught, who never stopped moving and was willing to try anything.

He wasn’t an architect, but he built and helped build more than a dozen buildings in the Pioneer Valley, including the Leverett Crafts and Arts Center, which he helped form in 1967. The houses he built were influenced by Japanese architecture, and implemented technologies that were ahead of their time, such as passive solar design for improved heating and large glass windows, said Margaret Ellen Starkweather.

He didn’t own a vineyard, but he made his own wine for more than 30 years. He wasn’t a trained writer, but he authored 13 self-published books. He wasn’t a formal artist, but he painted, created stained glass, and made jewelry.

“There are so many different ways to look at who he was,” said Alia Starkweather, 82, his second ex-wife. She was sitting at a table in her Belchertown home Friday evening, with a half-written obituary and an exquisitely carved wooden sculpture, made by Llan Starkweather, in front of her.

As she spoke, sunlight reflected off a silver engagement ring, hand-made by Llan Starkweather, that she still wears today.

They were married for 25 years — which included a few cross-country trips on a school bus Llan Starkweather converted into a camper — and raised seven children together, four of hers and three of his, but divorced in 1978 soon after he came out publicly as gay. And while Llan Starkweather was a complicated man, she says, he owned his flaws. The two maintained a deep and lasting friendship over the years.

“I don’t feel like I ever stopped loving him. I think he felt the same way, too,” she said.

On Sunday, a group of 40 mourners, including Alia Starkweather, gathered at the Peace Pagoda on Cave Hill Road to share memories and honor his legacy as a local artist, social activist and friend.

They sat in a semicircle not far from the foundation of an adjacent temple, which was designed entirely pro-bono by Starkweather, and burned down on Nov. 24, 1987, soon after its opening ceremony.

The fire’s cause was never determined, and Robbie Leppzer, 59, of Wendell, recalled how its destruction devastated Starkweather.

“The temple was his greatest creation, frankly. And it was such a tragedy that it only stood for six weeks before it was, literally, burned to the ground,” Leppzer said.

He met Starkweather in the early ’80s through a local men’s group that Starkweather helped start in the late 1960s, which is still active. The group, which consists of people of various sexual orientations, promotes gay rights, the feminist movement, and inclusion, through community.

Coming out publicly as gay in the ’70s and ’80s was a brave thing to do, Leppzer noted.

“It’s hard for us to remember what it was like in the early ’80s, or the ’70s, in terms of gay rights and social consciousness,” he said. “He was an inspiration and a challenge to many of us.”

Later in his life, he transformed an eight-bedroom house in Leverett that he built for his family, with help from Alia Starkweather, into a home for people who needed shelter. Another member of the group, Tom Weiner, 68, of Northampton, estimated that more than 100 people stayed in the home over a few decades.

He was, at the core, very human. And Weiner noted that “there were some rifts in his life. But in his last months, an incredible amount of healing took place. It was a gift to the people who loved him.”

Llan Starkweather, Weiner added, “was a leader, and limitless, in that he was a pioneer.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

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