IU Northwest alumnus reflects on eclectic past and leaves a generous estate gift

IU Northwest alumnus reflects on eclectic past and leaves a generous estate gift

Lee Strawhun has lots of great stories to tell. Throughout his professional career, the IU Northwest and IU Bloomington alumnus has worn many hats and plenty to show for his dedication and passion.

As a young man, he began his studies at IU Bloomington, hoping to study chemistry and zoology. However, finances caught up with him, and he had to drop out and look for work. Despite what might be perceived as a failure by some, this was actually Strawhun’s first big break.

He decided to apply for a job at Bell Telephone in Chicago, but unbeknownst to him, he was about to get much more than he bargained for. Instead of landing the repair position he was hoping for, he was offered a spot in the company’s management development program.

“I was shocked when I was offered this opportunity,” Strawhun said. “I didn’t have a degree; I didn’t have an educational background in business.”

As it turned out, Bell Telephone was looking for applicants with a liberal arts background—and Strawhun’s two years in the IU Bloomington biology department made him fit the bill.

Fast forward a few years: Strawhun has four years of work experience at Bell Telephone under his belt, resigns and returns to Bloomington to complete his undergraduate degree. The next logical step, he felt, was earning his master’s degree. What began as a visit to get the application turned into a job interview. Soon, Strawhun was working for IU in the Office of the Vice President for Regional Campus Administration.

“My responsibility was to work with science faculties on all regional campuses to obtain grants,” he said. One such grant helped to fund a partnership among IU Northwest, other area colleges and universities and the Health Planning Council for Northwest Indiana. Strawhun returned to Lake County to administer the partnership.

In the next few years, Strawhun worked on numerous environmental research projects. “All this time, I didn’t have a master’s degree. Because of my interaction with faculty from all these universities, everybody assumed I did,” he said.

Soon, those faculty members would be correct to assume Strawhun had his master’s. After an already storied career, he earned his master’s degree from IU Northwest and went on to become the President/CEO of the Southlake Center for Mental Health.

“I already had the capability of doing all this stuff,” he said. “But having that piece of paper—my master’s diploma—opened up other opportunities I never would have received.” 

IU always central

Strawhun has lived a life too numerous for a short summary—mental health advocate, college instructor, Army Reserves lieutenant colonel, husband, father, and so much more.

Yet every step of the way, it seems that IU was a part of his story. Strawhun has been an IU student, staff member, instructor and the first President of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs Alumni Association. What’s more, his wife, one daughter, and brother all have IU degrees, too.

“I've had interactions as a student and as a college instructor, so I selected IU Northwest for charitable giving,” he said. “I wanted to make certain I created opportunities for students in the future who, like me at the time did not have the money or resources.”

Strawhun has left an estate gift to IU Northwest, the Lee C. Strawhun Endowed Scholarship. This gift will be awarded to undergraduates in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and covers full tuition, fees, and books.

“More so today than ever, a degree has become a necessity in terms of opportunities,” Strawhun said. “Establishing this scholarship will create the opportunity for young people today, who might otherwise struggle in earning their degree.”

Strawhun, who early in his life was raised by his mother, aunt and great aunt and didn’t have a boatload of resources, has now built himself an astonishing legacy. In 2004, he was awarded the prestigious “Sagamore of the Wabash” by then-Governor Frank O’Bannon.

And then in 2007, Strawhun was honored by former Indiana Congressman Peter Visclosky: “Lee Strawhun has spent his entire life, both professionally and personally, working at ways to improve not only mental health services, but society as a whole,” Visclosky’s statement to Congress reads.

While recognition from such esteemed individuals is something to be proud of, Strawhun seems much more satisfied with his own personal fulfillment—and joy. “I was passionate at teaching, I loved working at the mental health center, I love my family. I just loved it all,” he said.

Reflections on a storied career

“Who would have ever thought?” Strawhun repeats this phrase as he looks back on his storied and eclectic career. “It was all because of the people I worked with, the jobs that I had, the places I got to travel, and my education,” he said. “I was fortunate that opportunities came along—it was wonderful.”

From an IU student and instructor to an esteemed alumnus and honored donor, Strawhun has left an incredible legacy that will permeate his alma mater for years to come. His story serves as evidence that if you take the opportunities you’re presented with, success is just around the corner.