Strather: Eternal Optimist put his stamp on Detroit

Move into real estate

Strather had begun waxing cars with his father as a child and continued to do so through high school graduation in 1968, while attending classes at Highland Park Community College and Wayne County Community College and even after he started working in a small real estate office. "I must have waxed more than 2,000 cars in my life." Strather says.

In 1970, he joined Bowers Realty Co. and soon thereafter earned his real estate broker's license. By 1971, he had become top sales lister among United Northwest Detroit Realtors, Strather said.

During 1973-74, Strather studied appraisal and public adjusting on his own, and in January, 1975 founded Strather & Associates and began putting together apartment deals in Northwest Detroit.

One of his early customers was former University of Michigan Associate Professor Nellie Varner, later a UM regent, who bought an eight-unit apartment building on Tireman Avenue through Strather and soon became an investor and partner with him.

Between 1979 and 1991, Strather & Varner Inc. closed more than $250 million in real estate transactions and acquired more than 1,000 apartment units in Southeast Michigan. They also formed Primco Management Corp., since replaced by Select Property Management L.L.C., to manage the properties.

Strather said he and Varner weathered tough times at some of their rental units during the rough real estate market of the 1980s. They were plagued by unpaid rents, damages to property and overdue taxes on some of their buildings.

By 1991, Varner's business interests took her in a different direction, and their real estate partnership dissolved, but they continued to work together on development of MotorCity Casino. Strather said they have remained close friends. Varner has been ill and couldn't be interviewed for this article.

Leonard Farber, now retired, was president of the former Republic Development Corp., which 20 years ago owned apartments in Detroit.

"Herb Strather walked into my office in 1983 or '84 and asked if we'd like to sell them. He'd found an organization in New York that was interested.

Strather was "professional, patient and persistent" in putting the $66 million deal together, but it wasn't all smooth sailing, Farber recalled.

"It's no secret that Herb is a black man, and one of the people involved in the deal was nasty because of that fact. It was remarkable to see how Herb was not thrown by that; I was truly impressed. He wanted to close the deal and he did.

"Putting myself in his shoes, I recognized how difficult it must have been for him, but he didn't take the bait. He's a unique guy and it would be a better world if there were more like him," Farber said.

The Importance of education

Currently, Strather is a partner in Woodbridge Estates, where his long-lasting interest in helping youth is underscored by his promotion of building improvements and programs at Edmondson Elementary School and Murray Wright High School and the charter school University Preparatory at Pelham.

A high-tech $1.7 million gymnasium is being built at Edmondson, to be managed by Think Detroit, Inc. and available to the community after school.

Edmondson is to become the city's first Detroit area pre-college engineering program elementary school, Strather said, with $400,000 spent for curriculum in math and science, and technology.

"Our goal is to make it the top school in Michigan within 48 months, using public and private partnerships, teaching tough subjects to the very young, when they learn best."

And Strather plans to start an Optimist Club in the schools.

Strather has been supporting the Optimists and their youth programs for more than 25 years. He has helped start a record 111 Optimist clubs nationwide from Massachusetts to Washington state, from michigan to Florida and Arizona, even in Barbados and Nassau in the Bahamas.

"He's built more clubs than anyone I know," said Ken Monschein, a St. Louis businessman and past president of Optimist International.

Monschein has known Strather for almost 20 years through Optimist activities, including Strather's service as governor of the Michigan clubs, on international committees and on the Optimist international Foundation board.

"Whatever he sets his mind to, he'll always finish first," said Monschein, who figures Strather can be the first African-American president of Optimist International, "when he finds the time."