NEEDHAM, Mass. (AP) - Billy Starr was living at his father’s house - sometimes in a tent in the backyard - in need of another adventure after hiking part of the Appalachian Trail, when he decided to ride his bicycle to the very tip of Cape Cod.
A two-sport varsity athlete in college, Starr made the 140-mile trip with a few friends and no real purpose except the journey. He quickly realized the ride would be even more meaningful if he could raise money for cancer research in the memory of his mother, who died of melanoma at the age of 49.
“I wanted to suffer and do a good deed. There wasn’t a business plan. It was just something I had a need to do,” Starr said as he prepared to make the trip again. “I was living at home, trying to figure out my life. I was coming from the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know: ‘My Generation.’
“You just had to have my kind of personality, that you had think that riding 220 miles was fun. I was that guy, and I am that kind of guy. I love to get into trouble and figure it out. Although now I’m older and can’t afford to get into trouble as much anymore.”
The ride that Starr began as a lark in 1977 has grown into the Pan-Mass Challenge, a two-day gathering of more than 5,000 riders and another 3,000 volunteers with a total haul that makes it the biggest single-event charity fundraiser in the country. PMC riders are expected to raise $40 million this year, bringing the total contributions to the Jimmy Fund at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute over the past 35 years to more than $450 million.
“It takes a ton of money to move the needle,” said Starr, whose event delivers more than half of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue and is Dana-Farber’s single largest source of unrestricted funding. “When you invest in an institution and the cure rates keep going up … you want it to be 100 percent but, at the same time, that’s huge.
“I wanted to just push the needle. And having lost just three family relatives in a very short period, I was impacted,” said Starr, who also lost an uncle and a cousin to cancer. “I wanted a better world.”
In a brightly painted but otherwise spartan office in a suburban industrial park, Starr took time out from preparing for this weekend’s Pan-Mass Challenge to discuss the event and its growth. Outside his door, a staff of eight full-timers and a handful of part-timers prepared for Friday’s start, which this year consists of 12 different routes along 360 miles of road through 46 Massachusetts towns.
Having conceived of the PMC at a time when athletic charity events were rare, Starr has helped make it a model for the $2.5 billion “a-thon” charity fundraising industry.
“This whole ‘sweat equity’ thing - so those of us who were never going to be doctors could find a useful role - it’s pretty obvious now,” he said. “You can bike, walk, run for every good cause under the sun. But nobody’s raised the money the PMC has.”
David Hessekiel, who as founder of the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum studies how nonprofits can raise more money, said the Pan-Mass Challenge was innovative for its time and still the premiere event of its kind.
“It raises, as an individual event, more than anybody else, and also it serves as inspiration to other events around the country,” Hessekiel said. “They were not the first people in the country to do peer-to-peer fundraising; hunger walks and a number of other events existed. But they were definitely pioneers, and especially in terms of the audacity of his goals of what they thought they could achieve.”
Now 63, Starr had no notion of creating a major event when he took off for the Cape in 1977, or even three years later when he decided to turn it into a fundraiser. He met with officials from Dana-Farber, one of the nation’s premier cancer research and treatment centers, who convinced him that he could raise more money with a bigger group.
In 1980, three dozen riders left Springfield for Providence in the first Pan-Mass Challenge.
They raised $10,200.