While Jane Fonda flaunted toned abs in the 1980s, Ruth Stricker was touting holistic health.
Before it was trendy to pair physical fitness with mental and spiritual health, Stricker championed the approach, starting the Marsh, a wellness center in Minnetonka blending Eastern and Western practices — from tai chi to treadmills.
“She was an incredible pioneer and visionary in the whole field of mind-body medicine,” said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, which Stricker supported. “Ruth was all about serving the community.”
The Deephaven resident was a prominent philanthropist with her husband, Bruce Dayton, who built what is now Target Corp. and was the father of former Gov. Mark Dayton.
Stricker died April 14. She was 85.
Born Ruth DeBeer, she grew up in Windom, Minn. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, inspired her studies of religion and physical education at Macalester College. She started teaching at a YWCA — beginning a long career in fitness, including teaching swimming at the Blake School, where her ex-husband, David Stricker, worked.
Staying active became even more important after she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease; a doctor told her to rest, but moving made her feel better.
“We’re over the big rush to the perfect body,” Stricker told the Star Tribune in 1990. “Now we’re remembering wellness and fitness are the vehicles that enable us to do the important things in life and are not the goals themselves.”
While presenting on mind-body at a Wayzata church, she met Bruce Dayton, who was intrigued by her work. With his financial help and her vision, they opened the Marsh, A Center for Balance and Fitness, in 1985.
“People scoffed at first,” said her daughter, Kim Griffin of Medina. “She was very adamant about not becoming another exercise studio. She was always ahead of her time ... not afraid to take risks.”
Stricker told the Star Tribune she wanted to “change hard bodies to healthy souls” and the Marsh could be a “model for the community health center of the future.”
“It was just way forward-thinking,” said Tim Mortenson, who runs the Marsh. “She used to say ‘tight abs and empty hearts.’ The chief goal was to use your physicality you developed for the betterment of the world.”
Dayton and Stricker, who married in Montana in 1988, did just that, traveling the world, collecting art and donating millions of dollars to organizations such as Abbott Northwestern and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“She was truly a force for good in this world,” Macalester President Brian Rosenberg said in a statement.
She also advocated “for the little guy — nonprofits, people in the arts, social service providers,” said the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen of Westminster Presbyterian Church, the family’s pastor who also served on Macalester’s board. “She had a big personality, a big spirit and a big smile.”
Stricker didn’t just write checks — she also took action, from starting a wellness center in the Crimean Peninsula to mentoring prisoners in Duluth. Life isn’t a marathon to be won or lost, she told inmates, but a series of new starts.
“She was full of positive energy,” said Lyle Wildes, a former inmate who became friends with her.
Stricker was a news junkie, an avid duck and pheasant hunter, walleye angler and Minnesota sports fan. And she was independent, insisting she and Dayton keep separate homes, spending each day both together and apart.
“She just touched so many different people in so many different ways,” said her son, Mark Stricker of Deephaven.
Besides her daughter and son, Stricker is survived by two grandchildren and brother Paul DeBeer of Sun City, Ariz. Services are postponed due to COVID-19.