Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
McDADE — Pam Williams was struggling to keep her two teenage daughters under control. They ran away. They ditched class. They smoked. So she moved to a nudist club 30 minutes from Austin and one mile from a paved road.
"These girls," she said, smiling. "They calmed down."
About 30 people live at Star Ranch, a family-oriented nudist club nestled in 112 acres of pine trees in Bastrop County. Other guests visit for a day or longer.
Since 1957, Star Ranch has been a shelter for nudists seeking camaraderie and a safe environment to practice their lifestyle. But its reputation has been marred by a federal investigation that led authorities to David Diehl, who about 12 years ago filmed two videos of a young girl being molested there. He is scheduled to be sentenced Monday.
Finding out about the crime was a blow to the community, which believes it takes a village to raise a child.
"That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to guard against and why we are so vigilant now," said Wanda Hannah, one of the club’s members.
Diehl, a software engineer who was a member at the club, was found guilty of 10 counts of exploitation of a child and faces up to 20 years in prison on each count. Diehl filmed himself sexually molesting young girls at the club and at his North Austin house in 1999 and 2000.
Hannah, who said Star Ranch has fully cooperated with authorities but said she couldn’t comment further because of the pending case, called the crime a “blight” to the club.
"It was devastating," she said. "It’s like having the breath knocked out of you."
Hannah became a nudist in 1996, after running into an old flame, who was a nudist. But at first, from his mobile home at a nudist park, “I looked out the window and giggled,” Hannah said. It wasn’t until she disrobed alone at a hot tub late one night that she converted.
"I was absolutely at home," she said. "I couldn’t have imagined how free it makes you feel not to wear clothes."
She moved to Star Ranch to retire about 13 years ago. When she worked at a private school in Houston, she hid her lifestyle for fear she’d lose her job.
"We’re protected here," she said. "My privacy and anonymity is guaranteed. We don’t use last names. I couldn’t tell you the last names of most of the people here."
Guests must disclose their names before gaining full entrance to the club, though. Since the early 2000s , employees at Star Ranch have run background checks on everyone who passes through the club’s gates. If someone is making a guest feel uncomfortable, acting inappropriately or spending a suspicious amount of time around the children there, they’re escorted off the grounds by a member of the board that governs the club.
Rod McClanahan, the club’s operations manager, said Star Ranch had the largest percentage increase of new members among all nudist clubs with permanent sites in the southwest last year, according to the American Association for Nude Recreation.
The Star Ranch membership is diverse, including veterans, state employees, Republicans and Democrats. Some hold Bible studies at the club. Others attend churches where the congregation speaks in tongues.
But they’re not swingers — a stereotype that dogs the family-oriented nudist community. Texas has its share of what are known as “hedonist” clubs, but Star Ranch has tried to cultivate a wholesome environment where parents can raise their children.
Since 2004, Lara Clabaugh has lived at Star Ranch, where she and her husband are raising their three children, two of whom attend McDade Elementary School.
Clabaugh’s children aren’t treated differently than the other students, she said.
The children’s friends’ parents know about their lifestyle. When Clabaugh hosts birthday parties for her children at their home, in a secluded section of Star Ranch, they wear clothes.
But, she said, her children are more comfortable in the buff. When she picks them up from school, she sometimes has to tell her 5-year-old son to wait until they get home to take off his clothes.
Pixie McClanahan, Rod’s wife, said she was “a nervous wreck” before trying nudism for the first time. She was self-conscious about her weight, but losing her clothes lifted that burden.
"I can just let the whole world get off my shoulders, and I can just be who I am here," she said patting her heart. "Without covering up."
This ran in the Austin American-Statesman on Oct. 23, 2011