Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2008
Profiles in the Law
The Lawyer as Monk
Brother Tolbert McCarroll Found
Fulfillment Helping Children in Need

By Cliff Collins

Brother Toby (Tolbert McCarroll)

Early AIDS babies in America often were shunned like lepers, and not considered for adoption because they weren’t expected to live long.

A three-member lay monastic community in Northern California became among the few to step forward and help. Starcross Monastic Community’s cofounder was Brother Tolbert McCarroll, who in his previous professional life had been a labor lawyer in Portland.

Known as Brother Toby since he took monastic vows more than 35 years ago, he has found the peace — but not always the quiet — he sought in retreating from the hubbub of city life to the bucolic Sonoma County.

The quiet part often has eluded him because Starcross early on stumbled upon a mission it did not seek but has not been able to leave behind: taking in — and sometimes even adopting and raising — abused, neglected or ill children.

This pursuit started innocently enough. McCarroll, visiting a children’s hospital dressed as Santa Claus, attracted the attention of a badly burned 4-year-old, who followed McCarroll around her room. Soon after that visit, the hospital called Starcross asking if it could accept a girl on an emergency basis. The girl turned out to be the same one who had told McCarroll she wished Santa lived nearer.

Starcross — which from the first has consisted of McCarroll and two nuns, Sister Marti Aggeler and Sister Julie DeRossi — soon accepted other kids. "It was rather unusual for people in our situation to do this," he says. "We always try to provide a home, not be an agency."

After AIDS started proliferating in America beginning in the 1980s, there was no protocol for protecting children born to mothers who were infected. The women usually were in poor health at the time their babies were born, and lack of understanding about how the disease spread created fear. Babies ended up being boarded in hospitals and often abandoned.

Starcross Community agreed to take in several such infants. "The AIDS pandemic took over my life," McCarroll admits. "AIDS was so devastating." The three never worried about their personal safety, though they were prudent, he says. "The personality of the children was enough to overcome any fear."

Starcross accepted so many kids that, for the first 23 years of its existence, it had an average of nine children under protection at any one time. McCarroll and the two nuns legally adopted some of them, which was unusual at the time since all three adults were single.

Several children have remained at Starcross until college and have found success, including David, a son McCarroll adopted who is a violinist at the New England Conservatory.

Starcross did not stop at America’s borders in responding to the AIDS problem. The group has helped place AIDS babies and orphans in Romania and two African countries, as well, and founded Starcross Kin Worldwide to help AIDS orphans.

Catholic Roots
McCarroll was born in Mississippi, but grew up in Springfield when his Roman Catholic family moved to Oregon. He attended Mount Angel Abbey for three years of high school, then finished at what was then St. Mary’s in Eugene. He took a liberal arts degree at the University of Oregon, becoming the first member of his family to go to college. He then entered law school there.

"I always saw myself as representing people who didn’t have a voice," he says. His father had been involved with labor unions in the 1930s and ’40s. "Most of the people I had contact with were coming out on the short end of the stick," says McCarroll, who viewed law school as a natural extension of his orientation.

"I fell in love with law as law. I had great respect for it, almost semireligious. When I started practicing, I was lucky to join a firm of very active labor lawyers." After finishing law school, he joined the Portland firm Tanner and Carney for four years and then was in Carney & McCarroll for two more years.

Portland attorney Bob Bouneff met and became friends with McCarroll when both were in law school at Oregon. McCarroll possesses a "very commanding personality and presentation," observes Bouneff, who has stayed in touch with him over the years.

"There are people who walk into a room who fill up a room. He was one of those people." McCarroll literally filled a room, as well: "He’s heavyset and tall, like a linebacker. He’s a big guy."

While in Portland, McCarroll assisted in the creation of Planned Parenthood, and he and Bouneff worked on consumer protection in the funeral industry. "We were the young Turks at that time. We were going to make the world a better place," Bouneff says.

After McCarroll moved to Ohio with his wife, Claire, whom he had married in his final year of law school, she became increasingly sick with diabetes. By the time they moved to San Francisco, where he was director of the Humanist Institute and his wife was dying, McCarroll was seeking a more spiritual path. "I had spent quite a few years in various social turmoil, and I didn’t want to lose my sense of self."

Brother Toby holding a child named Josh,
shortly before the child’s death from AIDS in 1988

Still a Lawyer
Even after becoming a monk, McCarroll has used his legal training in everything he has done. "I think my legal background never left me." Learning to "see the essentials," and how to negotiate have helped him many times in dealing with groups and governments. "I came out of law school with an idea of, underneath all the words, honoring a sense of fair play," he explains. "As far as what a lawyer was like in the ’50s, that’s still very much with me."

McCarroll, 78, a precise and thoughtful writer, has authored nine books related to spirituality, including treatises, memoirs of his experiences raising children, and observations about the commonality of different religions. His latest book, A Winter Walk, prompted commentator Bill Moyers to send along a note saying he "recognized a kindred spirit" after reading it. One of McCarroll’s earlier books won a Christopher Award, and he has received recognition from medical and AIDS organizations for his humanitarian work.

Along with his writing, McCarroll and the two nuns make their living by raising fruit, wreaths and olives, which they press into extra-virgin olive oil. The Starcross website is at www.starcross.org.

Bouneff says McCarroll serves as a model for all lawyers. "He was a very good attorney when he was active in the practice, and his conduct and actions since have been in the best tradition of the bar and attorneys."

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2008 Cliff Collins

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