“What are my values? What do I think is important? If I learned anything from my dad it was that I didn’t want to die. I wanted a life. It made me see how much more I wanted to value the life I was given,” she said, noting the tragedy of his mental illness. Candace Carr Strauss is working with a number of people to bring more mental health resources to the community. PHOTO COURTESY CANDACE CARR STRAUSS

Lessons from the trenches

Candace Carr Strauss’ life philosophy

Candace Carr Strauss is one of the guiding forces of Big Sky, she takes her job as CEO of both Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky seriously. In fact, she loves her work – and delightedly deep dives into data and economic profiles.

“This information is sexy. It’s about how we are building our community. It represents all the different moving pieces that are coming together to create Big Sky now, and in our future,” she said.

That love for travel and tourism and her tenacity in the workplace came at a high price – a part of her childhood. In many ways, her formative years were tumultuous and tragic and she admits she grew-up way before her time.

While having an abundance of empathy for interpersonal issues “because we are all human”, she feels frustrated when people complain about first world issues – there are real problems in the world, and she has known them.

“I had to be an adult far sooner than most kids because I had to help my mom,” she said. “Life taught me hard lessons growing up that are life and death and real.”

Her father suffered from mental illness at a time when there was very little understanding of it and even fewer resources. He would periodically quit his job. Her mother would go to his boss and beg to get him rehired. One day he decided to drive to New York City for a cup of coffee – 10 hours away. His wife and two daughters waited. They did not know if he would return.

Another time, he gambled away the family home and they had to move to an apartment. Strauss detests gambling to this day.

“Mental illness – the impacts on the whole family unit start out pretty small, but then they escalate with time. When you are a teenager wondering if your father is going to kill himself that day, that is a problem,” she said.

Through all of that, the accents from other languages, the spices of ethnic foods, the bustling kitchens full of conversations served as a beacon of love and hope. Her blue collar hometown hosted a lot of diversity. Little ethnic communities, almost like hamlets, were closely connected. Of Eastern European descent herself, she grew-up in a Greek neighborhood and was heavily influenced by their culture. Her mother spent her childhood in a nearby Italian neighborhood. Learning both Greek and Italian traditional cooking was an escape and a joy.

“A lot of Mediterranean influence in my upbringing, in how I view the world and in my persona – loud, passionate and very expressive,” she said.

That she found her profession in travel and tourism is not a big surprise. When the people in her neighborhood would barbeque lamb on the spit and speak of Greece, her eyes would light up. Her aunt married an Italian so she was immersed in that culture, too. It was a big world out there – bigger than Youngstown, Ohio. Someday, she would experience it.

After her father had been battling severe mental illness for over a decade, he died by suicide when Strauss was 25 years old.

“Nobody knows what to say to you at that point – like you are a leper,” she said.

A year into dating the man who would become her husband, she asked for time to piece herself back together before she would consider getting married. He waited, patiently, and became a part of the foundation of her life.

They just celebrated 21 years of marriage and have two teenagers.

“He supported me and all that happened to me in my young life,” she said.

The couple was supposed to travel to Greece to celebrate Strauss’ 50th birthday, but the European Union shut down the border in light of COVID-19.

She normally dodges Las Vegas, but he took her there for the vibrant arts and food scene.

They saw Lady Gaga’s jazz show where she was at the piano singing songs from the Rat Pack. Her voice was unreal, the show was intimate.

“I’ve always admired that she has used her art as a platform for mental health,” she said.

From there they went to Cirque du Soleil’s all-encompassing 360 degree experience – it was mind blowing. Then, to show true renaissance roots, they ended her birthday celebration by attending the Professional Bull Riding finals.

Some of her nearest and dearest have told her that 50 is incredible.

“Because you have spent your 30s and 40s trying to figure out who you are and oftentimes working to appease everybody to try to get everybody to like you. By 50, you figure out who you are, and you’ve figured out who you are not. You are okay with the fact that certain people aren‘t going to like you,” she said.

It’s about being your authentic self and finding authenticity in others.

“And those people who like you for who you are – those people are your tribe,” she said.

One of her favorite quotes is credited to Helen Bonham Carter: “I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m somebody’s double shot of whiskey.”

A quick route to being vanilla is to try to be all things to all people, she explained.

“So I pick a flavor – and not everyone is going to like my flavor,” she said.

She calls herself a love or hate kind of gal – few are ambivalent about their feelings toward her. At the end of the day, though, she hopes people recognize her work – and respect her for it.

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