Ironing-board activist silenced
Libertarian Jessica Strock dies following lengthy struggle with deteriorating health
For years she was a high-profile Chico fixture as activist, City Council candidate, referendum organizer and aggressive debater on most matters political—particularly from a Libertarian point of view.
On Friday, Jan. 23, the feisty and outspoken Jessica Strock died in the Gridley/Biggs Hospital. For most of the past six months she’d been hospitalized in various locations for a number of medical problems.
Her longtime partner and fellow Libertarian Michael Skram said that in the week before she died Strock, 50, had a couple of days of relative comfort and he thought they’d both be going home to their house in Chico for the first time in months.
“For two days she came out it and was her old self again, cracking wise,” Scram said last week.
But Strock, who was suffering from congenital heart problems, lupus and juvenile diabetes, among other things, contracted some sort of virus or illness that in the end her weakened immune system couldn’t fight off.
Skram said he met Strock in 1980 on Thanksgiving weekend in Chico and they ended up spending the holiday together.
“Our world views were very much in sync,” he said. “She was not a person who pulled any punches. An old friend called last night and told me how once, when he was having a difficult time, he sought her out for counseling. She helped people sort through their difficulties. That’s what a Libertarian is all about.”
Skram and Strock each ran for Chico City Council a couple of times and also helped lead the charge 10 years ago against the building of the parking structure that now sits between Third and Fourth streets on Salem as well as the formation of the city’s first redevelopment project.
Though in the end they lost both battles, the fight provided some good drama, including a row on a downtown corner over free speech, free-market commerce and the role of city property.
The couple set up on the northwest corner of Second and Broadway in front a store called the Golden Unicorn, owned by Nina Pierson. They set an ironing board across one of the city’s newly installed concrete planters and went about gathering signatures to force a public vote on the redevelopment project.
Pierson, a strong supporter of the parking structure, called the police and reported her customers were being “harassed by the Libertarians.” Two cop cars and a city code enforcement officer responded.
“The code enforcement officer comes out with a huge binder looking for a violation and finally comes up with something: We can’t affix anything to city property,” Skram recalled. “We had the ironing board across the planter. So I say, ‘I can fix that,’ and pull down the legs of the ironing board. Nina went ballistic. We did finally move, out of common courtesy, but there was a lot of foot traffic on that corner.”
At the time, those opposed to the parking structure had been labeled “non-producers” by Chico City Councilmember Mark Francis as well as a number of downtown business owners, including Pierson.
“Nina doesn’t like what’s going on because she doesn’t like the people who hang around down here,” Strock said at the time. “We’re non-producers and street scum because we don’t go into her shop and buy balloons.”
Skram said that, for all her strengths, Strock was also naive, at least early on.
“We were the true believers carrying a tower that, as it turned out, nobody else was much interested in,” he said.
He recalled an incident at a Libertarian convention in Los Angeles in the early 1990s when representatives of the alleged anti-Semite publication The Spotlight newspaper were ousted. Skram said he and Strock viewed such action as contrary to the party’s philosophy that people are smart enough to come to their own conclusions on such matters, that they don’t need protection from a bigger power.
“I remember Jessie climbed up on their table when [convention workers] came to take it away,” Skram said. That action initiated what became their growing disillusion with the party.
“We became disillusioned with all our of Libertarian escapades and in the end came to realize the party was no different than the others,” Skram said. “We were just too pure for our own good. In the end we were worn out, very disillusioned with political activism and election politics. We found out that our party when all was said and done was no better than any other.”
In the last few years, Skram said, Strock became a shut-in because of her deteriorating health.
“Jessie was a hard person to be around, but she was a caring person who made a big difference. She had an unorthodox approach and was confrontational, but she yearned for the person to come right back at her. She was very compassionate and open to all people, almost to a fault.”
Skram said Strock pulled no punches and that he learned to be mindful around her. Others, he said, would have done well to take the same approach. He recalled an inter-governmental meeting with the City Council and Board of Supervisors.
“Jessie was giving one of her heartfelt statement presentations, and people kept chitchatting and ignoring her,” he said. “So she stops and says, ‘You smarmy assholes,’ and then tosses a sheath of papers she was holding. [Former City Attorney] Bob Boehm gets a paper cut, and Supervisor Mary Anne Houx is so outraged she asks Police Chief [John] Bullerjahn to immediately remove Jessie from the room. Bullerjahn comes over, gets her in a headlock and starts giving her noogies. That was his summary judgment of Jessie.
“She was passionate and it was all out on the table with her.”
Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, an outspoken activist in her own right, said she and Strock enjoyed a mutually respectful relationship. She recalled going before the council in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s asking to establish a commission on the status of women.
“She told me, ‘I can’t support you, but if I supported government doing anything, it would be this,’ “ Jarvis said. “I think this is a much sadder place without her.”
Skram said Stock was an accomplished pianist, painter and poet.
“She had that certain, romantic flair.”
Strock leaves behind her mother Lyda Strock, of Allentown, Pa., and sisters Jennifer Marler of Chico and Lauren Hoffman of Woodstock, Ga.
Skram said Strock took her failing health in stride.
“She was a good sport about it. She never complained, never said, ‘Why me?' I’m really going to miss her. I’m really going to miss Jessie."