OUTstanding Virginians 2012

Edward Strickler

Frontiersman

“No ideas but in things,” wrote the poet William Carlos Williams. Responding to EV’s request for biographical information, Charlottesville-based public health advocate Edward Strickler sent several pictures of things. Some were of very old, yet very meaningful things: a Protestant bible from the 1530s that may have belonged to an ancestor, a Strickler’s pyramid-shaped grave marker from the 19th century, and a 200+ year old tree still growing on his family’s Shenandoah Valley homestead.

These things are old, but their interest to Edward lies in how they reflect on how we live today. “My issues of concern are contemporary” he says, “but history is my way of coming to terms with a whole range of issues.” History, for him, is the story of communities coming together in an ever-more inclusive story—“a human rights story,” he says. “There are both glorious and hideous aspects to that story,” he says.

The objects Edward chose illustrate that point. The bible, for instance, was produced by and for religious dissenters willing to die for their beliefs but was brought to the new world by war-weary Anabaptists who were among several religious groups that urged Washington and Jefferson to establish a government without a national religion—something unknown at the time and, Edward points out, still a matter of heated debate.

The grave is a reminder that the land where his family settled was a dangerous frontier whose government eventually included the imposition of “vicious laws and destructive social stigmas” with repercussions in the present day. The tree speaks to the Blue Ridge region’s amazing biodiversity, which Edward connects backward to his ancestors’ sense of stewardship of the land and forward to the dawning awareness among health professionals and policymakers that individual health is directly impacted by people’s connections to each other and the natural world.

Edward has been appointed to many professional, civic, diocesan, university, and state-level task forces and commissions, and when new issues arise, he helps develop ways and means – forums, task groups, organizations, appeals to legislators, coalitions, etc. – to address them. The sudden appearance of HIV/AIDS provided Edward with a paradigm for constructive social engagement and connecting with others. “I remember the first meetings in Charlottesville—men and women trying to understand what was happening with our friends and trying to find ways to help,” he recalls. “Helping from the beginning of the crisis and then continuing to help LGBT individuals, families, and communities achieve healthy, long lives—that has been my greatest privilege.”

His greatest joy, however, has been having an ally in the person of James, his partner of over thirty years. In the 1970s, they met at UVA’s Gay (now Queer) Student Union, which historically-minded Edward notes may be one of the oldest continuous gay meetings in Virginia, and perhaps the country. Their long, close union epitomizes two linked themes that Edward highlighted throughout our conversations: sustainability and unity. Individuals alone can make changes, he points out, but lasting change is possible only when people unite to achieve a shared goal.

“The story I wish to relate is punctuated at the beginning and end with ‘Together, we,” Edward writes in an email. “The family history/Virginia history is an image of ‘Together, we.’ ‘Together, we’ –virtually all of us immigrants—came to America for safety, liberty, and opportunity. And ‘Together, we’ overcame denials of justice, burdens on fairness, and limitations on opportunity, etc.”

Work still needs to be done, he states, to secure what he calls “respect for human rights of all human persons, families, and communities within a frame of reference that includes the planet on which we live.” At times, that means confronting the worldview that only individual choices matter, a view detrimental to the health of vulnerable groups. Yet challenges only spur Edward on to forge the ‘Together, we’ bonds that, in his words, “will make us good stewards of the planet and our communities for our own health and the health of everyone else around us.”