Nearly 60 years ago, Ron Strain stopped by his college president’s office to visit his friend, Dr. I. Lynd Esch. Manning the switchboard there—one of her many campus jobs back then—was Laura Russell. Ron was quick with a quip even then, but Laura also thought he was cute. Ron heard about it and soon asked Laura on a date. Six months later, Ron and Laura were married. It was 1956. Today they are as connected to each other as ever. The Strains belong together. A true power couple, their legacy is just beginning.
In January it was announced that the Strains had given their alma mater a $1-million endowment fund to enhance the Honors College (page 5). Their generosity will enhance a key component of UIndy’s future: the Vision 2030 strategic plan.
Exec is a Hoosier at heart
Ron Strain is Indianapolis through-and-through, despite career stops in other locales. He even helped bring one of the country’s most recognized brands to auto racing, where he’s attended 64 Indy 500 races . . . and counting. The son of a coal salesman and a graduate of Tech High School, he worked summers to earn college tuition. At Indiana Central he lettered in tennis and cofounded a student chapter of the Society for Advancement of Management. His career in business began after graduation in 1957. In 1960, Ron began a 17-year stint with RCA, with stops in New Jersey; Indianapolis; Monticello, Indiana; and Rio de Janeiro. Ron’s expertise was in plant operation and organizational finance. The year in Brazil, 1974–75, was an eye-opener for Ron. The business was changing and foreign competition was making life at RCA less stimulating. With two teenage children, Ron stayed until his oldest was off to college, but he resolved to look elsewhere.
“I looked in the Wall Street Journal one day and Miller Brewing wanted a person for director of plant accounting,” he recalls. “I had a lot of plant experience, so I put my résumé in, and they called me and gave me a job.”
It’s hard these days to imagine an executive finding work through the newspaper, but that’s how Ron became director of operations accounting of Miller Brewing Company in 1977, and five years later, he was VP of Finance. He implemented efficiency and management initiatives to strengthen business operations and improve production, and was on the front line of Miller’s foray into racing. Ron can’t remember the first Indy 500 he attended. His office walls are adorned with signed checkered flags, racing posters, a crystal IndyCar from Bobby Rahal, and an inscribed brick for his retirement in 1993, just to name a few items. Ron is enjoying decade number three of retirement more than his first, and he is quick with a joke or anecdote. His wit is his charm, as it was in the president’s office back in ’56.
A late start and a meteoric rise
Laura Russell Strain, a Methodist minister’s daughter, graduated from Odon High School and worked long hours to supplement the ministry discount she received to attend Indiana Central. Yet she never completed her degree, instead focusing on what she calls her “PhT: Putting Husband Through” degree. Heavily involved in the Indianapolis community early in Ron’s career, Laura supplemented the family’s income as a fashion model for L. S. Ayres, the major department store of the time.
“Being an individual who worked my way through school made me appreciate how much it would have meant to me to have financial assistance,” she says. The Strains funded two UIndy scholarships prior to their Honors College gift. The family’s move to Brazil in 1974 dramatically altered the course of her life. A chance meeting with Indiana Lieutenant Governor Robert Orr, in Rio on a trade mission, led to Laura’s interest in the Department of Commerce. Once the family returned to Indianapolis, she landed a job as an economic development specialist. At 39 years old, she’d begun her professional career.
Ron’s move to Miller two years after Laura’s starting with the state of Indiana brought sudden change to a burgeoning career, which she was able to continue in Milwaukee through the Association of Commerce. That job would lead to others advancing the economic and business interests of the city. Laura Strain became a fixture of the community.
“I was the CFO of a three-and-a-half-billion-dollar business, and I was always ‘Laura’s husband,’” Ron adds glowingly. In 1987 she was named senior VP for marketing/public relations at U.S. Bank. She would hold that position until retiring in 1998. Today, Laura commands attention in a casual chat as much as she did the boardroom 20 years ago.
All about the balance
The Strains balance each other in every way. Throughout 58 years of marriage, they make it a point at the end of every day to come together. “We really complemented each other nicely in terms of what he was doing and what I was doing, and we really supported each other,” Laura adds. “When I was new to that world of business, he was a good sounding board for me.” They are a true team, and, in chatting with them, it becomes difficult to judge who is more proud of the other. Today, with the stresses of the working world long behind them, balance may be even easier to find for the Strains. Their zeal for life has led to involvement with their neighborhood club and church, as well as countless trips around the globe (a family trip to Italy is planned for Ron’s 80th birthday).
“The thing that you miss when you first retire is that, in your positions, you’ve been creative, you’ve been challenged, and you’ve had a sense of accomplishment,” Laura says. “Slowly you start finding those things that enable you to have those same feelings again.”
The University of Indianapolis, for example: their affinity for UIndy has been rekindled in retirement, especially in the last few years. Quick to point out that their gift is a result of their admiration for President Manuel and the strategic plan, the Strains’ hope for the University’s future ties directly to their own experiences.
“We are both high achievers and we know the rewards of focusing and learning,” Laura says. “In order to be successful in an international world, you’re going to have this interdisciplinary approach. You’re going to have to broaden your knowledge about a lot more than one subject.”
The Strains are excited about the future their gift will provide—a gift inspired by their belief in UIndy’s vision and in its president. Fittingly, it’s that presidential office that made all of this possible, nearly 60 years ago.