12/06/10 — Willie Ray Starling dead at 70

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Willie Ray Starling dead at 70

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 6, 2010 1:46 PM

Willie Ray Starling

Willie Ray Starling, known to many in Wayne County for his annual portrayals of Santa Claus, died Sunday evening after a long bout with cancer.

Starling, 70, also was known for his activism in the county Republican Party and for several unsuccessful runs for political office.

But to his friends, Starling was more than a politician. He was a man of principle and a good friend with a big heart.

"He was a very dedicated individual. He had strong convictions in what he believed, and he stood up for what he thought was right," state Rep. Efton Sager said. "He was a dedicated family man and loyal to his friends, and we were good friends. I'm saddened by his passing. He will be missed."

In 2002, Starling, who was a retired U.S. Navy Reserve chief petty officer and also retired from the U.S. Department of Defense, lost the Republican nomination for state House District 11 to Louis Pate. In 2004, Starling lost the Republican nomination for state House District 10 to Stephen LaRoque. In 2006, Starling beat LaRoque for the Republican nomination for state House District 10, but lost to Democrat Van Braxton. And then in 2008, Starling lost to Democrat Bud Gray for Wayne County Board of Commissioners District 6.

But to Sager and others who knew him, politics doesn't define Starling's contribution to Wayne County.

He also was a past master of the Mount Olive Masonic Lodge No. 208, as well as of the Melrose Masonic Lodge in Florida, and a member of the Sudan Shriners and the Wayne County Shrine Club, where he was one of the mini-riggers and took the Shrine Club's mission seriously.

"He was a true Mason in every sense of the word. Our mission is to make good men better, and he loved helping children," said past master and current lodge secretary C.J. Weaver.

Which, he said, is why Starling got such a thrill out of playing Santa Claus.

"He was probably one of the best Santa Clauses Wayne County's ever had, and he took a lot of joy in that," Sager said.

"That's the one thing I'll remember most about Willie Ray, is him playing Santa Claus every year. He was not going to be able to play Santa Claus this year because of his treatments, but at the end of the summer, every year, he'd start growing that beard out," Weaver said. "He had a great costume. One year, he took a picture of himself in his truck and had a friend touch it up. It really looked like one of those old timey Santa photos. He had a bunch printed up, autographed them and gave them away. Even my two oldest living away from home had one in their stockings that year."

And for as long as many people can remember, Starling would visit nursing homes and the fire departments, and even people's homes on Christmas Eve.

"He'd give of himself on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, he would come see your family. He had quite a few houses," Weaver said. "He's going to be missed."

Starling is survived by his wife, four children and his mother.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Tyndall Funeral Home in Mount Olive.