Former St. Jude CEO turns private collection of military vehicles into sprawling museum in Dubois
CASPER — In 2010, Dan Starks got a patriotic idea. He wanted to participate in the Fourth of July parade in Dubois, the small northwest Wyoming town he retired to after a successful career in the medical device industry.
So Starks purchased a worn-down M4 Sherman Tank for $50,000. The restoration process was slow, and after four years, he grew impatient. He spent half a million dollars on a second, fully restored Sherman tank. Finally, he would be able to pay homage to veterans.
But he didn’t stop amassing military vehicles. He bought more tanks, jeeps, trucks and motorcycles. He bought guns and artillery. He even bought aquatic landing craft.
Now, Starks owns the self-proclaimed largest private military vehicle collection in the world and a 140,000-square-foot museum in Dubois — a town of less than 1,000 people — that rivals most major metropolitan museums.
Anyone is welcome to visit and learn about American history at the National Museum of Military Vehicles.
But Starks’ interest is about more than the machines of war. His museum contains stories of servicemen and women. He has walls, rooms and spaces dedicated to Americans of all genders, cultures and backgrounds.
As of now, he’s acquired over 475 vehicles, 270 firearms and close to 750 artifacts, and he’s built a museum from the ground up by spending $100 million of his own money. And while it may seem hard to believe, he never intended on compiling such an extensive collection.
By the time Starks had accrued dozens of vehicles and strangers were calling his number, he started thinking about a permanent spot for his collection.
“Let’s put these where anybody who wants to see it can see it,” Starks said.
Self-made Starks’ winding path to Dubois began on the opposite side of the country. Originally from Buffalo, New York, he dropped out of high school as a sophomore and went straight to college. He found a small liberal arts school in Illinois that accepted students without a high school diploma on the condition that they perform well enough on the SAT. After a year, Starks received the equivalent of a high school degree and graduated a few years later with a liberal arts degree with a concentration in humanities.
Starks credits the degree with developing him as a person. But he wasn’t making money, so he enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he graduated in 1979.
He practiced law for six years, but his brain began buzzing when one of his clients, who owned medical device company Daig Corporation, began courting him.
“He gave me several opportunities to leave my profitable law partnership and join his bankrupt medical device company,” Starks said. He had a meaningful role at his law firm, where he was a partner. Despite having a salary of $13,000 a year, he turned down the offer at Daig. But soon he changed his mind.
“I became (an) executive, (then) the president of a bankrupt company for 10 years,” Starks said. “During that period of time, we got out of bankruptcy, and we returned to our shareholders 80,000% and created some really innovative technology that really made a difference to a lot of people’s lives.”
As the largest shareholder at Daig, he instantly became wealthy. In 1996, St. Jude Medical acquired Daig, and Starks planned to retire.
But at the time, St. Jude was a distressed company, according to Starks. So he stayed on to help overcome the challenges St. Jude faced.
He became CEO of St. Jude and returned significant profits to shareholders, increasing his net worth yet again.
“I started out with nothing on my first job; I’m harvesting peas and lima beans for Green Giant and working in a warehouse,” Starks said. “And with all 32 years of success in the medical advice business — gave me the financial capability of doing what I’m doing today.”
In 2000, Starks and his wife, seeking privacy, seclusion and wildlife, moved to Dubois. As somewhat of a public figure, he had experienced enough stress and conflict working as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“I was just looking forward to having a private life and being a hermit,” Starks said.
But his time in solitude proved to be short lived.
Starks began collecting military vehicles as a hobby. The process from two to 30 vehicles was tedious — he didn’t intend on creating a museum. But by the time he acquired 30 military vehicles on his private ranch, word spread that a guy near Dubois had a burgeoning collection and knew the significance surrounding each vehicle.
He would get several calls throughout the day from people asking to come to his ranch to look at his collection. Starks always said yes. His collection was resonating with all types of people, not just military buffs. Someone would come and view the vehicles and then ask if they could come back with their daughters, then again with their granddaughters and, of course, their children serving in the military.
“I would have the same family come four times,” he said. “I was giving tours in my private ranch of these 30-some vehicles three times a day.”
Starks and his wife quickly noticed that his collection resonated with people. They decided to create a public space for it.
“I guess that’s called a museum,” he said.
While he never served in the military, Starks says he has been a long-time fan of military history and has always appreciated those who served. He realized if this museum was going to succeed, it needed to highlight compelling stories. Starks needed this to be top notch. He wanted to teach visitors about American history. It’s not about the vehicles or the guns; it’s about the stories and the people involved with making democracy flourish, he pointed out.
“If we haven’t offered information about what you need to do to keep this country the way that it is and continue to improve it, then shame on us,” he said.
So Starks got to work. He pulled out some graph paper, a mechanical pencil and thought about World War II’s key stories — the first gallery in the museum. Over several months, Starks drafted the building’s spaces; he imagined how big the entire building would be and what the interior would look like. Pretty quickly, he created a flow of the World War II gallery, the first thing visitors would see.
Starks finally had a draft he considered a starting point. He approached a design and build company out of Illinois, but things fizzled. Soon afterward, he found Randy Richardson of Richardson Construction in Cheyenne, who has been constructing commercial buildings and houses in Cheyenne for 30 years.
Typically, Richardson and his team see an architect first or do a design and build, where a client usually brings one page with some idea of what they’re doing. But according to Richardson, Starks emailed him on a Friday or Saturday afternoon asking if Richardson could build a tilt-up concrete building for him.
By Monday morning, they were meeting for the first time in Cheyenne.
Richardson explained what he could do and what his company has done. At the end of the introduction, Starks — who had done his research on Richardson — told Richardson he was the guy to build the museum.
“I (wanted) to show him more work, but he had seen and heard enough,” Richardson said. “Nobody’s coming in very often with the rooms all drawn out, with all the dimensions down, how big he wants it, how tall he wants to build,” Richardson said. “It’s not very often we get something like that. He puts a lot of thought into his projects (and) he’s a great guy to work for.”
By February 2018, crews had broken ground on the museum. Somehow the Wyoming Legislature caught wind of what Starks was doing in Dubois and formed a task force to assist him with resources or support.
The task force had a mixture of local legislators, a Wyoming Department of Tourism representative, a Wyoming Veterans Commission representative and a few others. His team had just broken ground at the site of the museum. But Starks didn’t need any help.
“This was all just a private project, and I really appreciated the opportunity to communicate with the state, but we didn’t need (or) weren’t asking for any states resources,” Starks said.
Lawmakers weren’t angry that Starks turned down their money. Instead, they invited him to the Capitol, where he received a resolution of appreciation.
And while Starks wasn’t looking for help, he found it in Doug Cubbison, then an adviser to the fact-finding committee and curator of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in Casper.
Cubbison was highly impressed with Starks’ plan, even after spending numerous years consulting and working with museums across the country.
“As I recall, the only issue that Dan required assistance with was obtaining a right of way from the Wyoming Department of Transportation,” Cubbison said. “Where, of course, what’s today is the museum entrance.”
With Cubbison on board as the burgeoning museum’s curator, they aimed to make their institution competitive or fully equivalent to the Smithsonian Institution, except with a specific focus on military vehicles.
“We’ve always worked to the standard of excellence and to achieving the highest standards of public presentation and interpretation,” Cubbison said.
By spring 2020, the World War II gallery, the weapons vault and the Patton gallery were all complete, though the museum itself was still under construction. In spite of that, Starks felt that people could visit the museum and walk away with some knowledge. Plans to open were moving ahead.
Then COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. The construction crews quarantined and vendors shut down, causing the museum to delay its grand opening.
Instead of lamenting the situation, Starks got back to work. The library needed to be finished, as did the Korean and Vietnam war displays.
“What are my concepts? What main storylines do I think are appropriate to present the American experience in Korea and Vietnam?” Starks thought to himself. “The whole museum was delayed, but on the other hand, the Korean War and Vietnam War interpretations were accelerated.”
Today, the National Museum of Military Vehicles is still under construction, but it is open and available for tours.
On a recent tour, the first thing Starks pointed out in his museum was the Chance Phelps theater. Phelps, a young man from Fremont County, was killed in an ambush in Iraq while operating a machine gun in the turret of a Humvee. Phelps was just 18 and had been in the Marines for a year. According to Starks, Phelps kept his position in the turret and returned fire until he died. He earned a Bronze Star and is buried in Dubois.
Hollywood depicted him in “Taking Chance,” a movie starring Kevin Bacon. “That’s who died, and that’s who the family lost, who we lost, who the community lost,” Starks said. “He died in 2004, and he’s still every bit as relevant, remembered, missing, and we’ll never forget him.”
The second thing Starks pointed to was a photo of a Navajo windtalker working behind enemy lines.
“Look at how young this guy is!” Starks said. “He’s over there in the jungle, in the Pacific. That’s what this is about! Look at how young that guy is and look at what he’s doing! It’s the humanity of this.”
Every room in the museum is dedicated to someone who served. The rooms carry their names: Phelps, Daly, Benavidez.
And in a polarizing time in the country, Starks said he has always been someone focused on inclusion. Being open-minded, not stereotyping and not generalizing were things he was familiar with from his time running large companies.
“I want anybody who comes in here to see something of themselves in what we’re honoring,” Starks said. “I want people that have a completely different orientation, politically, socially or culturally or with respect to the military working to find common ground. That’s a better way to live, and the country’s going to be better off.”
Starks’ museum is expected to finally be completed this month.
However, if you ask people in the museum industry, a museum never stops growing or planning. Starks is building out an additional exhibit encompassing 11,000 — 12,000 square feet in the World War II gallery, with an expected completion date in May 2022.
In June, Starks plans to break ground on another building — which he plans to name after Samuel Nathan Blatchford, a Native American veteran who still has family on the Wind River Reservation — as additional office space for expanded meetings. It will accommodate up to 500 people. Starks aspires to create a museum campus and another building dedicated to other chapters in American history.
“We want to tell more stories and pay more tribute to more generations of veterans,” he said.
On top of that, he built a 47,000-square-foot restoration shop in town that supports all of his military vehicles and plans to add an intern program.
But if you think Starks is trying to make Dubois a destination, he’ll say otherwise.
“We’re just sharing the history we have,” he said.
Still, a sprawling military museum will bring more visitors to Dubois. Consider that most people are familiar with Cooperstown, home to the Baseball Hall of Fame. If baseball is big enough for people to know about a village in upstate New York, then American military history is big enough for people to recognize a small town in northwestern Wyoming.
“Dubois may very well become a destination,” Starks said, “but it’ll be something that’ll come on its own, not by a plan on our part.”