What was billed as a deferred memorial last Friday following the mid-November death at age 88 of Falls Church civic activist Ed Strait in the Senior Center room at the Falls Church Community Center turned into one of the recent period’s most poignant celebrations of not only Strait’s life and contributions, but of the legacy of the City of Falls Church, itself.
It could be said that was due to how deeply Strait’s role had, since the mid-1950s, been interwoven into the history and development of Falls Church in the era since its incorporation as an independent city in the late 1940s. The testimonials by numerous surviving City pillars given Friday suggested that was exactly the case.
For any resident of Falls Church, or employee in a City business, it would have been an enormous exposure to the real history of the City to have attended Friday’s gathering, as about 80 people did.
Speakers ranged from the venerable City activist Lou Olom, speaking from his seat, to former mayors Betty Blystone and Brian O’Connor, to current Vice Mayor David Snyder, Councilman Phil Duncan, former Councilman Lawrence Webb, School Board member Kieran Sharpe (also a former Council member), F.C. Democratic Committee chair Betty Coll, F.C. League of Women Voters president Edith Smolinsky, Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) president Michael Volpe, Revenue Commissioner Tom Clinton, Veterans Council colleagues Marvin McFeaters and Harry Shovlin, former classmate Bill Bosman, Garden Court next-door neighbor Jeannie Flahy, and, the meeting’s convenor, Strait’s son, Jefferson.
Emotion spilled over on the faces of a number of the speakers as the seemingly unspectacular work of Strait to uplift and sustain a wide range of community organizations and efforts were presented. “I surprise myself,” O’Connor said, when he suddenly had to pause and choke back tears.
Jefferson Strait introduced his father’s legacy with a brief biography, saying he’d been known as “Guv” in his home. “He’d be happy this was being held in the Community Center, because this building represents the community spirit he so strongly believed in,” he said.
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, on Dec. 13, 1923, Strait was reared by his mother and grandmother, and was one of two ROTC cadet captains in high school, becoming the valedictorian of his class upon graduating in 1941.
Drafting his famous (to all who knew him well) essay on the Athenian Creed to win acceptance to Columbia University, where he enrolled in the fall of 1941, also working six hours a day as a copy boy for the New York Times, after Pearl Harbor in December of that year he enlisted in the Army for three years, and served as a first lieutenant in the Philippines.
He went back to Columbia and earned a B.A. in economics and a M.A. In public law and government. Upon graduation, he began as an intern but would up working 38 years for the National Institute of Public Affairs and Bureau of the Budget of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
His 1987 retirement letter was cited by his son, saying a highlight of his career was when he came to the Oval Office to brief President Eisenhower an “how to organized the Defense Department.”
He touted the growing role of women and minorities in government employment, and quipped that it was the work of the OMB to “treat both parties with equal measures of civility and contempt,” and added that, with his retirement, “I can now become a Democrat.”
He said there were five newspapers delivered daily to the Strait home, and that his father was “generous, non-judgmental and encouraging.”
McFeaters presented a plaque from American Legion Post 130 to honor Strait as a “Veteran of the Year,”which had been due to be presented to him at a Veterans Day ceremony he was unable to attend days before his death.
He praised Strait for being instrumental in the establishment of the F.C. Veterans Council (one of only two such organizations combining the efforts of disparate veterans groups), the Veterans Memorial in front of the Community Center and the plaque on the wall of the Center enshrining the names of every Falls Church resident who lost life in America’s wars.
Volpe cited Strait’s support for the VPIS, having served as its president in 1979 and 1980, and said that a tree will be planted in his honor during annual Arbor Day ceremonies in April.
O’Connor referenced Strait’s identification of Falls Church with Athens, his 12 years on the City Council, his becoming the first recipient of the Citizen for a Better City’s (CBC) Wayne and Jane Dexter Award in 2001, his active participation and encouragement in many community organizations, helping to maintain their membership rolls, and constantly playing the role, himself, as “one shoveling coal to help the ship work better.”
“We knew him as ‘Boss,’” O’Connor said, and you never said ‘No’ if ‘Boss Strait’ invited you to lunch.”
He called Strait a “mensch,” Yiddish for a “good guy” that has at its root meaning, “A person of integrity.”
“Everybody is here today because they admired and loved your father,” O’Connor told Jefferson Strait.
Former Mayor Blystone remembered Strait for his role supporting the League of Women Voters, being the first male to join the local chapter after the national vote was taken to allow them in in 1973, and that Strait hosted meetings of the local chapter in his home, encouraging its efforts as enhancing civic discourse and participation in elections.
He was the “keeper of the archives,” as well, she said.
Bosman recalled his 60-year friendship with Strait, saying he was “calm, cool and collected” in all things, “a force for reason in public life.”
Olom hailed Strait’s role in getting the International Baccalaureate (IB) program launched in the City schools, calling him, “One of the finest persons I ever met.”
Duncan said that Strait “didn’t see Falls Church as a small place, but as a place where we could do great things,” citing President Lincoln’s call to fight “not just for today but for a vast future.”
He added that Strait would get “very upset” if everyone here didn’t sign in with email addresses. “He had a brilliant strategic and tactical mind for politics.”
Clinton said he wore a gold-colored tie because Strait was “the gold standard.”
Sharpe cited Strait’s support for the efforts of the Human Services Advisory Committee and the Falls Church Housing Corporation, having their genesis in Strait’s living room, caring about “the least among us.”
Shovlin attested to Strait’s contributions to American Legion Post 130 and the Veterans Memorial, including “a great newsletter.” He said of the war memorial plaque, he wanted to recognize those who sacrificed, not the wars, themselves.
Webb cited Strait’s enthusiastic welcoming of he and his gay partner whenever he encountered them.
Snyder the terms “civic, citizen and civil” were “all joined together in one person” in Strait. Flahy hailed Strait’s neighborliness, Coll praised him for being the go-to person to bring fried chicken to potlucks (despite his aversion, developed in childhood, to chicken), and Smolinsky, on behalf of the CBC said that Strait stepped up to serve as the organization’s president twice when it needed to regroup after losing a local election, once in the 1970s and again in the late 1980s.