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Remembering Eddie Strickland, the 'book man'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2011 - Eddie Strickland spent more than 40 years as "the book man" at the Greater St. Louis Book Fair and more than 40 years as the husband of Carol Jean Strickland.

After his death in late May, both still feel his loss and his presence.

"That's a long time to be married to someone," says Strickland. "For him to be gone, it's really kind of hard for me right now."

Strickland has had health problems of her own over the fall and is taking some time off from work now at her doctor's orders. When she doesn't feel like getting out of bed, she feels her husband whispering to get up and get it together, offering some of the strength he shared with his family, the volunteers at the book fair and the young athletes he coached over his lifetime.

"I just feel like Eddie's still here," Strickland says. "And he's helping me out a lot."

Last spring, her husband insisted on holding off on treatment for the lung cancer that eventually claimed his life. He wanted to oversee the book fair first. And he did.

Next year, the Greater St. Louis Book Fair runs from April 26 through April 29. And so far, everything's going well.

"Eddie's been really hard to replace because he was with us for over 40 years," says Joni Karandjeff with the book fair.

Strickland says she still plans to work with the fair again this spring, like she always has. And in that work, she says, there is a bright spot.

At the book fair's recent Christmas party, Strickland met her husband's replacement -- a 23-year-old man from California whom she liked right away.

There's a lot that her husband did here that she remembers, and she plans to share it with the new book man, she says.

"I think helping him is gonna help me."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

On a cold Tuesday morning, echoes filled a vast parking garage, the sounds of birds and cars and grocery carts rumbling over cold concrete. Past parked cars into a roped off space, rows of hundreds of tables sat, mostly empty and ready for the boxes of books growing in small towers at one side. The workers moved through the damp, cold morning in the Macy's parking garage at West County Mall. But each of them stopped and said something when Eddie Strickland passed.

"Hey, how you doin', man," Strickland replied.

At 65, he stands just under 6 feet. He's bone thin, his voice hushed. The cancer that sits in his left lung, currently untreated at his insistence until after the Greater St. Louis Book Fair, is responsible for both those things. But his gray-blue eyes miss nothing.

Book fair week is his week, what's gotten him out of bed without his wife's help for the past few days, what he works for all year as he drives the large white truck around St. Louis collecting books.

2011 marked Strickland's 40th year as the sole employee of the book fair. Discrimination hasn't stopped him. Neither has time or aging or even technology.

So, for now, his cancer treatment could wait.

Hippie Days

Strickland was born in St. Louis in 1945 and eventually moved out to San Francisco.

"That was during the hippie days and hippie ways," he says.

He moved back home in 1968.

"My life wasn't going nowhere," he says. "I was still young enough to make a change, so that's what I did."

Strickland was 23 at the time, and he doesn't gloss over the decision.

"I did it to stay out of jail, and to stay alive."

A year later, in 1969, he met Carol Jean, his future wife, through church. They married and would go on to have three girls and a boy.

Strickland poured himself back into sports, which he'd always loved, and played softball every weekend with an adult team called the Ghetto Tigers. His kids always watched, and he promised them that when they got big enough, he'd put down his bat and get them on the field.

At the time, his wife's uncle was working as a driver with the Greater St. Louis Book Fair. When he was ready to quit, he asked Strickland if he was interested in the job.

He was, but Strickland's first day was nearly his last.

The first pickup that day was in Jennings, where Strickland lived, and he felt good that his first stop would be so close to home.

Then he got to the house.

"I could see the books inside," Strickland says.

The homeowner, a white woman, answered the door and quickly closed and locked it.

"Come around back," she told him.

He said no, thanks for thinking about us, and left, feeling angry and dejected and that he was being ordered around to the back instead of getting the books where they were up front. He knew it was because he was a young black man.

The thoughts consumed him as he rode to his next pickup at the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. A woman named Sr. Gabriel invited Strickland to sit down and have a cup of coffee.

The expression on his face must have been bad, he thinks now, because she sat with him and talked until he began to feel better.

At his third pick-up, Strickland found himself at the home of a well-known St. Louis lawyer and politician who rolled up his sleeves and helped haul books out to the van until the man dripped with sweat.

"So I said, well, let me give it another shot," Strickland says. "So I gave it another shot, and another shot."

"And the rest," his wife says, "is history."

Keeping Track

As their children grew, Strickland kept to his promise and got them involved in sports, from track to softball to anything they showed interest in.

And then he did the same for a lot of other kids. Strickland and his wife, who works in the cafeteria at Jennings High School, have worked over the years with a number of schools as volunteer coaches, singling out kids who need help and supporting them along the way. Strickland, known as Coach Buck to many, has nicknames of his own for his athletes, from Speed Demon and Smiley to Turbo 17 and Mud.

Strickland and his wife weren't just concerned with excellence in sports, but in raising the self-esteem of their athletes and keeping them busy and out of trouble.

In 1997, the couple was given the Good As Gold award from Publisher's Clearinghouse with a $10,000 prize. They used the money to take their track team that year to the Junior Olympic trials in Florida and then Disney World.

When she was growing up, Lisa Strickland, one of the couple's daughters, used to cringe when her dad would pick her up at school in the book fair truck, but soon, all her friends wanted to ride in it, too.

She and her siblings all grew up working at the book fair every spring and helping their parents with pick-ups and office work the rest of the year.

Her father was a tough coach and a tough dad.

"He'll tell you himself," she says, "all he breeds are champions."

She and her sister, Eva Strickland, remember a list of his sayings, like "If you're not a champion, don't come to the table," and "Buck up or go home."

Now, all of his children have graduated from high school or gotten their GEDs, three went to college or junior college and all have good jobs. One grandson plays football at Lindenwood; and Strickland and his wife say all the athletes they worked with over the years graduated from high school.

Yes, he was tough, Strickland says. But goals weren't set to be tripped over.

"I don't want you to reach them. I want you to keep going."

The Walking Map

On the cold April morning a few days before the book fair opened, Strickland continued his work in the Macy's parking garage and stopped for a moment to introduce the young man who has stepped in during Strickland's cancer treatment.

"It's easy," Jerrell Sherod said of the work. "It's all right."

"It's easy?" Strickland repeated, and laughter rang out behind him.

Filling Strickland's shoes hasn't been that simple, though. Sherod drives the truck around the metro area for pickups, and his knowledge of the city isn't like Strickland's.

"He's a map," Sherod said. "A walking map."

Mary Ruth Strickland, the Stricklands' youngest daughter, stood nearby. She's engaged to Sherod and has worked the book fair most of her life. Now, she sits in the seat her mother used to in the truck and does what's needed.

Will they be taking over for her parents, then?

"We already are," she said.

But Strickland isn't ready to give up his job just yet.

"We'll see," said the 65 year old. "But my goal was to go up to 70."

Joni Karandjeff has volunteered with the book fair for 26 years. She says that, while the fair was an institution before Strickland came along, he is an important part of things now.

"He's our face of book fair," she said. "And he has been all these years."

Roger Rehberg is a driver for Hogan, which delivers books from the warehouse to the book fair site each year. He's worked with Strickland for four years now.

"He's a good guy, but he expects the best from his workers, too," Rehberg said.

And if things go well here, he said, it's because of Strickland.

"He knows all the people," said volunteer Betty Torno. "He makes pickups at the same places year after year. He runs the place, basically, with Carol Jean's help."

And Karandjeff knows that whenever Strickland does retire, things won't be the same here.

"He's always been part of our family," she says. "It's just gonna be different."

Strive

Slowly Strickland made his way into a narrow back hall inside the mall, toward a space where the books were stored. He shuffled along, a styrofoam cup of ice crackling in his hand.

"How you doin'," he said to a man pushing a box-filled dolly.

"Mr. Buck, ready to work," the man said.

"That's the way I like it," Strickland replied.

He stopped nearly everyone who passed. Some were family. Some just felt like it. They've worked for him for years, just like their parents did.

In the back room, he ran into Dora Heard, whose sons all worked the book fair and were coached by Strickland in football.

"We're just like a family," she said. "That's all."

"It's like a family reunion," agreed Kevin Curtis, who has worked for Strickland at the book fair for 22 years. "We get together every year, and we get it done."

After checking on things in the back, Strickland made his way back through the quiet hall toward the parking garage, his wife by his side as she often is.

As the morning passed, empty tables filled up slowly.

"Two minutes, daddy," Eva Strickland called out to her father, letting him know when the workers' break would begin.

Two minutes later, shouts of break time echoed all around. Everyone made their way over to the table, then found a spot to rest.

Almost everyone.

With a soft voice, Strickland excused himself and headed off to keep working.

Kristen Hare

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