Even as a child, Norm Strasma was entrepreneurially minded. He would load up his Red Flyer wagon and set out to sell vegetables grown by his family.
That entrepreneur spirit came naturally to Strasma, 87, as he hails from a three-generation family of local entrepreneurs.
His grandparents owned and operated the Royal Blue grocery store on Court Street in Kankakee. His father, Ed, was working for the Kankakee Chamber of Commerce in 1935 when he purchased the credit bureau operated by the organization. Then, in 1950, he purchased the Lowe Seed Company in Aroma Park, and later acquired a store in Clifton with his brother, Roy. That store sold groceries, dry goods and hardware. It’s there Norm Strasma found his first real employment — stocking shelves on the weekend.
What would follow for Strasma is a commendable dedication to business ventures and the Kankakee community as a whole. He has been a vital part of Kankakee County for more than eight decades. In recent years, he has played key roles in Wright in Kankakee and the Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley.
Now, the lifelong resident of Kankakee County has been named the Daily Journal Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2019.
A 1955 graduate of DePauw University, Strasma took graduate classes at Columbia and then earned an MBA from the prestigious Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. DePauw has honored him as a postgraduate Rector Scholar, its highest academic honor.
After college he worked for Brunswick and managed the Cicero-Berwyn Credit Bureau for his father. Then, in 1965, he returned to Kankakee.
“I never had any desire to relocate,” said Strasma, who has lived in Kankakee County all his life except for college and for service in the U.S. Army. “I remember Jack Charlton — who certainly had the ability to have a second home — and he never had one. Kankakee was his home.”
A BUSINESS ACUMEN
Strasma has carried his entrepreneur savviness with him through the many positions he has held. During his time at the credit bureau, its basic functions were credit reporting and the collection of delinquent accounts. Strasma expanded the offerings as he saw other opportunities arise. He published a weekly bulletin of public records to serve businesses, added an employment service, and organized management advice for medical offices.
As the advent of fax machines changed the way credit reports and other information was transmitted, Strasma stayed ahead of the curve and was soon in the Internet Service Provider business. Seeing more opportunity there, he also capitalized on the opportunity to educate others on how to use internet services.
“You have to look at opportunities,” Strasma said of being an entrepreneur. “Things change. How will your business be different in 10 to 20 years?”
We are now, he says, living “in a particularly favorable time” to be an entrepreneur.
He was also a pioneer in communications, operating a desktop publishing business 30 years ago. He created “Inn Business Review,” reviewing inns and bed and breakfasts throughout Illinois in the 1980s.
TRAVELING THE WORLD
As a quip might go, he helped put Kankakee County on the map as he served during the 1990s as the executive vice president of the International Map Dealers Association. He was able to quadruple the organization’s membership to 400.
Of all his enterprises, this is the one he says he enjoyed the most. It gave him and his wife, Janice, the opportunity to indulge one of their great interests — travel. It opened doors that allowed them to be more than just tourists. Together they went over the North Pole in a Russian icebreaker; they traveled to Antarctica by ship; and they have been on Safari in Africa.
In total, Strasma has visited 125 countries. With such worldwide expertise, he has been involved in helping to host student exchange groups touring Kankakee County.
Strasma has donated a significant amount of his time to local charity. He was president of the Kiwanis Club in 1978 and remains an active member. He served on the board of the Kankakee Area YMCA and helped raise funds to build the current Y. He was chair of the Board of Trustees for Asbury United Methodist Church.
It was with the Community Foundation that Strasma was able to make one of his largest impacts on the community. He was asked to join the board by Craig Copper, the first executive director. Then, when Copper left to develop a consulting business, Strasma became the director.
Under his leadership, the foundation’s assets grew from $1.7 million to $7 million from 2005 to 2011. He increased visibility of the foundation and supported projects like the Riverfront Trail for hiking and biking. That successful project brought 12 different government agencies together.
He secured a challenge grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation that doubled the assets of the foundation. When he left as director, the community foundation honored him with its Beacon Award.
In 2010, Chair of the Kankakee County Historic Preservation Commission Elizabeth Dunbar asked Strasma to become the fifth board member for Wright in Kankakee.
It was the time when the home, located at 701 S. Harrison, was being opened for tours to the public. Strasma again raised the public visibility of the home with fundraising activities.
Now President of Wright in Kankakee, Strasma’s leadership is helping push an effort to retire the mortgage on the home.
“It’s a great benefit for tourism,” Strasma said of the historically significant home. He notes that visitors from 25 countries and 48 states have toured the site.
LIFE IN RETIREMENT
Though 87, Strasma looks and acts years younger.
“I’ve been very fortunate health-wise,” he says. “Being active helps.”
Grandchildren always help with that, and Strasma has three. Daughter, Karen, and her husband, Mark Koenig, are the parents of Alison, Natalie and Madison.
Unfortunately, Janice died in 2018 at the age of 82.
“She was a great supporter of all the activities and businesses I became involved in,” he said. “We had a great 55 years together.”