Just over two weeks ago I was in New Mexico, celebrating my father’s 100th birthday. While I was there, on the 20th of December, my wife had to take her 92-year-old father to the hospital here in Florida for a suspected GI bleed. He was still there when I got home the evening of the 22nd. On Monday, December 23rd, they believed the situation had cleared up, and just wanted to hold him another night for observation.  

At 12:15 the morning of December 24th, we were awakened by a call from the hospital. He had suffered what we would come to find out was a series of catastrophic strokes. Over the course of the next couple days, we would learn the degree of the damage. It was extensive, something we were told a much younger man could not have survived. His Living Will was clearly defined, and the day after Christmas, while remaining in the hospital, he was placed under the care of Tidewell Services, our local hospice organization.  

My father in law, Robert Strasser, passed away late in the evening of December 30, 2019. 

I’ve been very fortunate in life in a number of areas; and having Bob Strasser as my father in law was one of them. I was a son in law, but he always treated me like a son. He was also a bit of an enigma; he possessed a humility and unassuming persona that belied an extremely successful life in the corporate world. He never talked about himself or his accomplishments, and I was always learning something new about him – even after he passed. 

More on that in a moment. You’ll need to let me cathartically ramble for a few minutes first. 

Bob retired in 1984 as the Corporate Treasurer for Household International, the parent company for HFC, or Household Finance Corporation. In that role he was well known in the finance community of the day and was responsible for the management of hundreds of millions of dollars. Still, he never really discussed anything that he did during his long career with the company. That became apparent to me at his 80th birthday. We collected stories from some of his Household friends for a surprise birthday party we had planned, and one of them told me about working with Bob when they “helped save Chrysler.” I asked him about it, and he simply relayed that one day at lunch, in 1979, he had learned that Chrysler Automotive was very close to insolvency and was about to approach the government to attempt to secure guaranteed loans. He discussed this with their CEO, and he knew Chryslers CFO, so they decided to reach out to see if there was something they could do. The result of that effort was they eventually purchased hundreds of millions of dollars in Chrysler receivables, which was a major part of the money Chrysler was required to raise in order to secure loan guarantees from the federal government.

When this came up, I had known Bob for 20 years. I had known that he had done business with Lee Iacocca at one time but did not know the extent of the dealings. You think that a story like that might have come up at some point. But that was not his style. 

Bob was also very active in the field of healthcare, serving on boards for the Lutheran General Hospital system and the Parkside Medical Center in the Chicago area. Once here in Sarasota, he ran for a position on the board of directors for our county hospital, Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH). He ended up winning 5 elections to that unpaid position and served the community in that capacity for 22 years. During his tenure the hospital experienced extraordinary growth, culminating in the construction of what is known as the Courtyard Tower, a state-of-the-art facility that greatly expanded the capabilities of the operation. Bob absolutely loved Sarasota Memorial. He had a profound impact on that facility and was loved by many who work there.

And that was apparent this past week, when they lovingly cared for him in his final days on this earth. 

It was a story related to that hospital where I continued to learn things about my father in law; a story of his influence and impact that he never discussed. To be fair, in this case, he might not have even been aware of any influence he might have had. 

SMH had for many years a Chaplain by the name of John Gerhardt. Bob was extremely fond of John, and the feeling was mutual. My wife heard one day about work John did with nurses at SMH, working with them on the healing powers of compassionate touch. His concept as I understood it was simple; a needed hug or a simple hand on a shoulder can have enormous impact on a patient or loved one at a time of crisis. I thought it was an interesting concept in today’s somewhat sterile world of modern medicine and attempted to contact him to learn more. I intended to eventually write about it as it may relate to care within the workers’ compensation industry. Unfortunately, John retired about this time, and I was not able to pursue the idea.

Just a few days ago I spoke to John by phone about my father in laws death. He told me how much Bob had meant to him, and then, without any prompting from me, started talking about his work with nurses and the importance of compassionate touch. He told me of the stresses he could experience as a trauma chaplain, and how facing heartache and loss on a daily basis can take its toll on someone. He then started telling me about a particularly bad day where he had dealt with numerous deaths. That evening he was responsible for the invocation at the monthly board meeting. After he was done, he described his surprise as “the guy in the big chair” (Bob was Chairman at the time) got up and came off the stage with both arms outstretched wide. He told him, “you look as though you could use a hug.” 

John told me how powerful that was at a time when he was truly down, and the hug became somewhat of a ritual at board meetings going forward. He also told me that “every nurse I worked with in my last 10 years at SMH learned about Bob Strasser and the power of a compassionate hug.” 

Son of a gun. I had wanted to talk to this Chaplain about his innovative concept, and it turns out a primary source for the idea was my own father in law. Bob may not have had any idea how much that simple gesture meant. He wasn’t a calculating person who did things for credit or even specific outcomes. He was just a genuine guy with a compassionate heart who touched the lives of many in our community.

And I was proud to be able to call him Dad.

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