31 has worthy foe: mom in a minivan

Initiative's backers have 3 million reasons to fear her

She’s an heiress with a fortune estimated at nearly $1 billion. Yet she describes herself as just a mom who drives a minivan and cares about her children.

When Pat Stryker gave $3 million two weeks ago to a group formed to fight Amendment 31, which would limit bilingual education, she made state political history. Multimillion-dollar checks don’t often land in the bank accounts of citizen initiative groups.

But handing out checks is a big part of what Stryker, 46, is all about. During the past six years, her family foundation – recently renamed the Bohemian Foundation in honor of the free-spirited creativity of the Bohemian movement in Paris in the early 1900s – has given grants of more than $6 million. The recipients are nonprofit organizations for youths, the environment and the arts, mostly in Larimer County, where Stryker lives.

Her philanthropic activities won her an Exemplary Citizenship Award from the Fort Collins City Council last fall.

But the $3 million contribution to the English Plus group came not from the foundation, but from her personal funds.

The Bohemian Foundation does not support or oppose political or legislative issues, she said.

“Amendment 31 is a political issue, and one I personally feel very strongly about,” she said. “That’s why I chose to make a personal donation to the campaign to defeat it.”

The constitutional amendment, which will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot, would require non-English- speaking students to be placed in one-year English immersion programs unless their parents obtain a waiver for bilingual education. Backers of the amendment say existing bilingual programs have failed, and that immersing non-English-speakers in English-only classes will help them learn the language more quickly.

But Stryker, whose daughter attends Harris Bilingual Immersion School, a K-6 school in Fort Collins that teaches its 285 students in English and Spanish, sees it differently.

“I don’t want limits placed on my daughter’s educational opportunities, or on those of any other child in Colorado,” she said. “For me, the issues are simple: Amendment 31 takes educational freedom of choice away from parents. It threatens teachers. It’s bad for education and bad for the children of Colorado.”

Stryker said she first learned of the issue last May when her daughter came home from school and said, “Mom, they’re going to try to close my school.”

“When I learned who ‘they’ were and what they intended with this ballot issue, I became active, along with other parents, in working to defeat it,” she said.

In any case, she sure got “their” attention. Rita Montero, chairwoman of English for the Children, proponents of Amendment 31, called Stryker a vampire.

“You’ve got this rich, liberal woman who wants to educate her kid off of the backs of our kids by having our kids teach her child how to speak Spanish,” Montero said recently. “She’s sort of like a vampire sucking blood out of our kids and walking away with a smile on her face.”

Stryker refuses to respond to the criticism. She notes that the rest of the world seems to accept bilingual education. “In Europe, it’s a no-brainer. You get more than one language,” she said.

“She regards it as irrelevant to the work she’s doing,” said Tom Hacker, a one-time Fort Collins journalist now serving as Stryker’s spokesman. A very private person, she’s not keen on giving interviews or having attention focused on her or her family.

Stryker said she doesn’t speak much Spanish, but as a child, she had a pen pal in Mexico. “My dad learned Spanish, and he would translate for me,” she said.

A divorced mother of three, she lost her father, Lee Stryker, 26 years ago in a plane crash. It was her father and her grandfather, Dr. Homer Stryker, who built the family fortune, which she now shares with a younger brother and older sister.

Homer Stryker was an orthopedic surgeon who invented and patented a number of medical devices, including a cast cutter. He formed Orthopedic Frames Co. to market the devices. Lee Stryker took the company global. In 1964, the name was changed to Stryker Corp., with headquarters in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Pat Stryker says she knew her grandfather well. “(He) helped all of us understand the responsibility to leave the world a better place than you found it. He did wonderful things, and he left the world a better place. That’s all I want to do, and that’s why I’m doing this now.”

While Stryker’s father came from wealth and privilege, her mother was the daughter of educational missionaries who worked in China for many years. Her mother was a social worker who also stressed the importance of making the world a better place.

For Stryker, helping children is her No. 1 goal in life. “I’m passionate about most things that affect the lives of children,” she said. “I want to help give people who are under 18 and can’t vote a voice. I want to be a champion for children.”

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