Dave Strlekar remembered for devotion to youthPublished 8:00am Wednesday, April 30, 2014
When it came to protecting the education of Dowagiac’s youngest learners, Dave Strlekar was never one to shy away from making his opinion heard.
When the former elementary school principal worked under Superintendent Larry Crandall, administrators would be fined a dollar during meetings for showing up late, leaving early or peppering profanity in their remarks.
“At the start of every meeting, [Strlekar] would sit down, take five $1 bills out of his wallet, lay them on the table, and say ‘I’m ready for today’s meeting,’” Crandall said.
Despite, or likely because of, his outspoken nature, Strlekar left an indelible mark on the children, teachers and staff he worked alongside in his nearly four-decade long career with the Dowagiac Union School District.
Strlekar died suddenly on April 19, while vacationing with his wife and friends in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was 69 years old.
Born in Eveleth, Minn. to parents Joseph and Angeline Strlekar, he earned his bachelor’s degree in education from University of Minnesota-Duluth before coming to Dowagiac to teach elementary school in 1966.
“Education was very important where he was from in Minnesota,” said his wife, Barbara. “Three out of the four children in the family were teachers.”
After teaching for six years in the district, Strlekar was promoted to principal of Sister Lakes Elementary. The educator went on to serve as principal at Lincoln and Kincheloe elementary schools before retiring from the district after a final stint at Sister Lakes in 2005, totaling 33 years of service.
“He was given the chance many times to move up to the central administration, but he always chose to stay at the elementary level,” Barbara said. “He enjoyed working with the kids and the parents.”
As the main authority in the buildings he worked in, Strlekar was known by students and staff alike for his high standards and stern leadership, demanding — and often receiving — the very best from his charges.
“He was an old-fashioned principal,” said Max Sala, Strlekar’s longtime co-worker and friend. “If you were a kid who got in trouble, he was not the principal you wanted to see.”
While he ran a tight ship, Strlekar was also supportive of his students, and could recall the names of every student he was responsible for long after they graduated, Barbara said.
He also held himself to the same standard of excellence he expected from others. In his 33 years as an administrator, the principal only took one sick day, Sala said.
“Whenever there was a school day, he was there, and he expected everyone else to be there too,” he said. “He expected the students to show up. He expected the teachers to show up. He expected the custodians to show up. It was game day to him.”
Even after his retirement, Strlekar made supporting the city’s children a priority, becoming president of the Dowagiac Optimist Club and frequently contributing to the Dowagiac Athletic Boosters.
“He was never afraid to do some of the grunt work when it came to the needs of kids,” Sala said.
Strlekar’s former boss, Larry Crandall, said he recently had an opportunity to witness the retired educator’s continuing dedication to students in person a few weeks ago, stopping by the Optimist Club’s annual pancake and sausage breakfast fundraiser. The two spoke to each other briefly while Strlekar was working in the kitchen during the event, Crandall said.
“When I left there, I said, ‘You know, that’s as happy as I’ve ever seen Dave,’” he recalled. “He was just enjoying life and having fun. That’s what retirement is all about.”
Strlekar was also a passionate golfer, helping to organize weekly outings with a group of around 30 people, traveling to courses all around Michigan and Indiana, Barbara said. He and his wife also frequently traveled the country, making frequent trips to Minnesota and Florida where his three daughters and five grandchildren reside.
A memorial service for Strlekar was held on Saturday at Mission Hills Memorial Chapel in Niles. At least 350 people came to pay their respects to the late educator, including former teachers, students and principals from around the state, Barbara said.
“I knew all along it would be a big ceremony, but I don’t think I really realized just how many people he impacted,” she said. “It’s a bit overwhelming when you think about it. Most people who go into education hope they have that kind of impact, but not everyone does.”