Mike Strang probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Hundreds of people delivered a special goodbye at a memorial service in Carbondale on Monday by singing “Happy Trails” in honor of the beloved rancher, family man, legislator, horseman, humorist and all-around good guy.
“Wow,” said his longtime friend John McBride while speaking from the stage and looking out at a standing-room-only crowd that reached several hundred. McBride said nametags were needed for people from all walks of life that were somehow touched by Mike.
There were a few somber and heart-tugging moments, but McBride and the other speakers focused on telling stories that highlighted Mike’s wit, humanitarianism and ability to make people feel special.
Mike died peacefully at his Missouri Heights ranch on Jan. 12, with his wife, Kit, by his side. He was 84.
McBride said he learned optimism and the ability to place events into proper perspective from his friend. “He paid no attention to crisis,” McBride said. “He went right by it.”
He told Mike’s family that he hoped they saved Mike’s large-framed glasses because McBride wanted to wear them to gain that special perspective.
Mike’s niece, Ellen Strang Nieslanik, said Mike had the ability to change the many hats he wore with ease. He was equally at home at his family’s cattle ranch as he was at his kids’ ski races and in the U.S. Capitol as a member of the House in the 1980s. His self-assigned mission in life was to spread kindness and make people see the good in themselves and others, she said.
“He came with a full basket of roses. He threw them freely,” Strang Nieslanik said.
Mike’s daughter Laurie gave a touching tribute highlighting her outstanding memories of her dad — from the embarrassing ski outfit he insisted on wearing when she was a self-conscious, teenage ski racer at a competition to his willingness to be a “surrogate father” to so many people who visited the ranch.
Mike’s son Scott said his dad taught him that a person only brings himself or herself down when pointing out the shortcomings of others. Mike also taught him that the Code of the West hinged on “being neighborly” — helping neighbors who were likely to help you some other time.
Geoffrey Platt, a longtime friend who managed Mike’s Congressional office, related stories that showed how Mike’s coaxed the best out of people. “He made you feel you were simply the greatest,” he said.
The kitchen of the Strang’s ranch house was the “Grand Central terminal of Missouri Heights” where everyone was welcomed.
Mike, a moderate Republican who wore his signature cowboy boots and Stetson hat in the halls of Congress, had no problem reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, according to Platt. He was able to get an important water bill passed by both the House and Senate, though Democrats controlled them both. Platt said he has been told that water law remains vital to this day, though too complex for him to explain.
“As Mike would say, ‘I don’t understand all I know about it,’” Platt said.
Mike’s humor shined through in several anecdotes offered by the speakers. Platt said one of his favorite one-liners was when Mike would say something was “handier than a pocket in shirt.”
Laurie and Scott said their father joked that the reason he and Kit didn’t get a divorce was because neither wanted the kids. His pat answer when asked how he slept was, “I don’t know, I was sleeping.”
Strang Nieslanik recalled what she labeled Mike’s “pause buttons” — where he would think for a moment about something that was said, then follow it with something funny, thoughtful or non-committal. A couple of her favorites were, “Huh, I’ll be damned,” and “The hell you say.”
The stories left the crowd wishing Mike happy trails “till we meet again.”
“He came with a full basket of roses. He threw them freely.”
Ellen Strang Nieslanik