Joel Strack grew up on a farm south of Sycamore, one of
eight children of Jeff and Mary Lu Strack. He went through Sycamore
schools, a member of the Sycamore High School Class of 1978.
He was an outstanding student, taking part in music, theater
productions and even public speaking, earning awards at competitions
in 4-H and FFA. He went to the National 4-H Club Congress where
he was awarded a college scholarship by Readers Digest
for his leadership skills.
Entering the University of Illinois, he intended to major
in drama, but decided he might be more successful majoring in
public relations. One summer he took a job at Disneyland in California
and enjoyed it so much he applied for an internship at Disneyworld
in Florida. He was hired after graduation. Joel was a natural
at acting and relished portraying the different Disney characters
in costume, his folks told me.
His parents said he was popular in school and did not come
out as gay until college when he came home to tell them. His
father, Jeff, said he wasnt as shocked as he might have
been because the year before a nephew also had came out as gay.
Both parents and his siblings were supportive of his unapologetic
approach to being gay.
Joel died of complications from diabetes at age 59 this
month in Orlando, where he had retired after a 32-year career
with Disney. I learned from an article in the Orlando Sentinel
and a number of tributes about him online how much of an effect
he had on the community.
He had stepped up to organize the first Gay Day at Disneyworlds
Magic Kingdom, somewhat to the dismay of his employers. He had
to stand outside the gates with a sign alerting other visitors
that this was happening, but nothing went wrong. In fact it was
so successful Disney management permitted it to become an annual
Over the years, he became a leader in promoting gay rights,
organizing and serving as president of the Rainbow Democratic
Club, founding the Orlando Gay Chorus, leading Gay Pride marches
and helping create the Gay and Lesbian History Museum.
Joel Strack showing off his culinary skills in this
2000 photo (Provided by his family)
Parents Jeff and Mary Lu Strack stand outside their
DeKalb home with the community art project Huskie they purchased
with the rainbow they had the artist paint on its side. Jeff
said it represents the diversity in their family (Schrader photo
for Shaw Media)
Just before his death, a celebration of his life featured
him as guest of honor, attended by more than 300 people from
all parts of Orlando, not just the LGBT community. A city proclamation
declared it Joel Strack Day and the resolution concluded with
Joel is known for his positive message Treat Yourself
Right. It further stated Joel Strack champions
a lasting legacy of love, devotion, friendship and smiling in
the face of adversity and never giving up.
That was June 23. He passed away 22 days later.
Jeff and Mary Lu shared a video of Joel when he was keynote
speaker some years ago at the national convention of the Country
Women of the World. Having never met him, I was impressed with
his enthusiasm, speaking skills and spirit in delivering his
talk. I could see why he was such a success at Disneyworld, holding
several positions over his long career there.
His parents continued their support of gay rights by joining
the DeKalb area group Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays
(PFLAG), organized by the late Mildred Eychaner, the mother of
two gay sons.
They have marched in several Gay Pride parades, including
those in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Jeff told me they carried
a banner that read Proud Parents of Gay and Straight Children.
There is a celebration of Joels life planned for
Aug. 31 in DeKalb.