Dennis Wayne Strickland, 71, died November 19 in Greenville, Texas. Never heard of him? Neither had anyone in this small Upper East Side of Texas town until six years ago. In this very short time, he taught the town how to “live it up.”
After working about 25 years for The Stewpot and The Bridge — havens for homeless and at-risk individuals in Dallas — Strickland decided to leave Big D for smaller pastures and chose small-town Greenville. The people of the town are forever grateful he did.
Born in Waxahachie May 14, 1949, Strickland learned early in life to love people wherever he was. In an interview with local realtor Denisha Denney for her “Heart of Greenville” video series just weeks before his death, he talks about developing his sense of caring for a community in his childhood.
“My father was a minister. We were gypsies,” he recalls fondly. “We moved every three years and lived in lots of places. That was a rich experience.”
At one point when he was a young boy, they were in West Texas, he said, and when they were getting ready to move on he expressed concerns to his mother about leaving the people of the community he’d come to know so well.
“But mother, who will take care of our people,” he asked her. “It showed who I was even as a little boy. I love people. I learned that people are people everywhere. So the next church, the next town, I enjoyed the people there too.”
Along with love, music became the thread that connected Strickland to people wherever he was.
“I enjoyed anything to do with music,” he says, including theater. “That was my salvation.”
Strickland said he felt alone through his teen years and couldn’t wait to be an adult because he thought they “had it made.” Now, looking back he says, he wished he’d done things differently and has advice for kids today.
“Enjoy your childhood. I think it’s important for kids to be who they are. Don’t sell out.”
After a couple of tries at college, Strickland spent the next few decades in a variety of positions including church choir director and organist, hotel management, and owned a bar he called Sassy’s because it had “attitude.” During his 25-year career working with homeless services, he ended up supervising 120 people and had huge responsibilities, he said, and in 2014 decided it was time to “retire.”
“I wanted out of the city and the stress of the traffic. And I wanted to do music. I wanted to spend my last years in music.”
He looked for a part-time job where he could use his music skills and found an ad for a position with a Methodist church in Leonard, Texas. He took the job and found a place to live in nearby Greenville, still small compared to Dallas, but with a growing downtown scene.
Strickland worked for the church in Leonard for about 16 months and immersed himself in the Greenville community over the next few years. He joined the Kiwanis Club and used his musical background to play and sing for the residents at nursing homes and the local hospital. He volunteered to work with the Boys and Girls Club, read books to children, and was a board member for four years at the local library.
He served on the board for the Greenville Family Theater, helping with five musicals since 2015.
He started and met weekly with a group called Wellbeing at Redeemer Lutheran Church, encouraging members to live out healthier lifestyles, and collaborated with Texan Theater owner Barbara Horan on quarterly Sunday afternoon worship services featuring local musicians.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was starting and hosting “Hump Day Happy Hour” each Wednesday evening at the Texan Theater that brought the community together.
“I love the theater,” he told Denney, “and what we do every Wednesday.”
Strickland hosted an evening of entertainment each week featuring local artists. It includes musicians, visual artists, poets, storytellers, dancers, and more.
“It gives them a place to do their stuff,” he says. “It’s been an opportunity for us to grow as an arts community in Greenville. I am continually amazed at the talent here. We call it ‘the best artsy happy hour anywhere.’”
The night he passed away he wasn’t feeling well so he asked someone to fill in to host Hump Day Happy Hour for him. Many of his fans sent him well wishes and a huge outpouring of love. He wrote, “I’m blessed,” and then asked all to take care of themselves and to help others.
His friends say they can’t imagine their community without him.
“Every single interaction I had with Dennis was inspiring,” Derek Price says. “He lifted the spirit of the room from the moment he stepped in. Greenville is much better because he spent his golden years here.”
Kevin Banks says, “What a light he brought to our community and all who were lucky enough to know him personally. I have often described Dennis as the kindest soul you could ever hope to meet. The impact he made on the local arts community was beyond what most could ever hope to achieve.”
“This man was an angel,” Luke Wyldmon says. “I’ll say it just like he did, ‘every day is a gift.’ You were a gift to every one of us from the first day you came into our lives.”
Gail Sprinkle says, “His influence cannot be underestimated. He changed Greenville.”
Hundreds of people are affectionately expressing these sentiments on social media in the loss of their beloved community member.
In the final moments of Denney’s interview with Strickland, she asks him about his time in Greenville. He says he’s proud of the way its people come together for charities and other projects.
“It happens all the time. You see the camaraderie, good neighbors, people helping each other. They’re all wonderful.
“I know there are some ‘stinkers’ out there. I have to love them where they’re at. We’re all different. We have to be people that are working together — while taking care of ourselves individually — that’s what motivates you to care about the people next door.
“I don’t know if it makes any difference where you are at geographically. Maybe it’s just about your attitude. I’m in a place of attitude where I just don’t meet people I don’t love.”
Denney asks him for his best piece of advice and he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Find someone who has what you want, and ask them how they got it. Ask the questions, and do not assume everything you think you know is so absolute. If it’s not working for you, let that go. We are a work in progress. Don’t give up. Continue the course.
“I’m living the best years of my life. It’s really quite amazing. Go find your reason. Live it up, I like to say. Live it up.”