Lifelong Chicagoan Donald Strzepek has been in the jewelry business for more than 30 years and is currently the owner of Tucker Inc., in the heart of Jeweler's Row in the Loop.
"I grew up on the Northwest Side of Chicago, near the brickyard, with my two brothers and a sister," said Strzepek. "My neighborhood had lots of kids and we played outside until the street lights came on. I had a great childhood. I went to Lane Tech, which was an overwhelming experience because of the size of the school."
He graduated from DePaul University with a double major in English/communication and secondary education and, after a brief stint teaching high school English in the Chicago Public School system, began his journey in the jewelry business.
"I was too young, short and way too thin to be a high school teacher, so I decided to find other career options where I could utilize my artistic and communication skills," said Strzepek. "I found Tucker Inc. and the owner, Sherman Tucker, sent me to my first gemology course. I was hooked. He also taught me to be humble and see every customer as my first customer. I found my passion and a career path that allowed me to explore all facets of my persona."
While Strzepek was working at Tucker Inc., he resumed teaching, this time as an English as a Second Language teacher at Truman College.
"Recently, I had my students write down one word to explain why they came to the United States, and out of over 50 students only one person wrote down money," said Strzepek. "The rest of the students wrote down freedom, opportunity, love, family, war and security among other words. In my almost 30 years of teaching these classes, I have seen refugees from Bosnia and El Salvador, and professionals from many repressive countries, who have come here and taken cleaning jobs so they could support their families. All they want is security and freedom, and the right to live the American dream."
In 2006, when Tucker was ready to retire, Strzepek decided to punchase Tucker Inc., so he created a business plan, took out a huge loan and bought the company.
"This is my home, my company, my life , my passion , my joy, my adventure and, yes, even my source of angst," said Strzepek. "I have created almost every kind of jewelry design imaginable, from the sublime to the avant-garde. This includes a belt with 28 one-carat diamonds, a volcano ring with a ruby, a necklace with eyeballs and sapphires for tears, tiaras and thousands of other items. I love working with a client to create something that is unique and made especially for them."
As for wedding rings, Strzepek explained that he is a purist who does not like metal rings. He said if a couple is "making this leap of faith in each other, you need to do it with style, grace and elegance."
Strzepek has had many famous clients including Chef Art Smith and his husband Jesus Salgueiro, author Sara Peretsky, actor Chris O'Donnell and baseball player Curtis Pride. He nevertheless added that everyone who walks into his store is a high profile client.
Over the past three decades plus, Strzepek has also been involved with a variety of local LGBTQ- and HIV/AIDS-focused groups and events.
When Strzepek was in college, he and fellow classmates Edward Maldonado, David Gayley and Bliss Frings founded the first LGBTQ student group, The Society of the Individual, for a Catholic university in the world. Four years ago, the group ( now called Act OUT ) invited Strzepek to take part in their Pride Parade contingent as their guest marshal.
One of the ways Strzepek gave back as a young adult during the AIDS epidemic of the '80s was by participating in Howard Brown Health's early safer-sex awareness research studies. They met every six months to discuss the issue and get tested for HIV. Strzepek has gotten tested every six months since.
He started attending Chicago's Pride Parade in high school and has never missed a year since then.
In 1985, Strzepek recalled, he and his college friends were walking alongside the parade's line-up area. A man asked if anyone wanted to ride on his AIDS-awareness float since the people who were supposed to participate had recently died of AIDS. They decided to jump on the float since no one else was willing to do it.
"As we went through the parade route, the thing that came to my mind was this moment was like a Fellini movie," said Strzepek. "It was surreal. When our float went down the street there was total silence. People were coming up and saying they admired our courage and how much more research and medical funding needed to happen. It was an awe inspiring moment.
"I can remember how different the parade was in the early days. There were rallies after the parade in the park with poets, speakers, musicians and politicians. I have witnessed so many changes and advancements, yet I still see so many challenges that need to be met. We still need HIV/AIDS education, human rights awareness and, yes, I see an ever growing need to address the opioid crisis that is escalating within the gay community."
Strzepek also started the Halloween Parade with Maldonado in 1997. They got the idea after seeing New York City's parade in 1996.
"The New York City parade was a spectacular event with flame throwers, Joi Cardwell singing dance tunes, marching bands, Broadway stars performing and, yes, costumes, costumes and more costumes."
They eventually obtained a permit for a Chicago parade and, the following year, it took place from the CTA Red Line stop at Belmont to Sidetrack.
"Here is the kicker, we were to remain on the sidewalk," said Strzepek. "If anyone stepped onto the street, we would have been arrested. I think that first year consisted of about 30 people. A family with two children in a red wagon, a couple of people walking their pets and the wonderful brave cast of characters I call friends and family. The first year there was a police officer in uniform along the curb about every 20 feet keeping us on the sidewalk. Now the parade is a wonderful, beautiful, much larger event."
Additionally, Strzepek participated in the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality and the very first Dance for Life as a volunteer.
When Strzepek is not working he loves to watch foreign films, ride his bike, go to the gym, go dancing, hang out at the Kit Kat Lounge on Wednesday nights, eat out in restaurants and watch other people cook because, he said, "I am the world's worst cook."
His message to the world is "Be proud of who you are. Love is love in all its glory. Never stop advocating for what is right and just."
See www.facebook.com/TuckerCompany/ for more information.