"Peasant in a Paper Suit"
By Mary McCorkle
Bakersfield is filled with characters working to spin gold from oil,
agriculture, music, and each other, but only one was the Pied Piper, a boxing and
wrestling promoter, who became a World War II super patriot in a town that
handed bushels of gold to him to help others.
"Peasant in a Paper Suit" tells the story of Steve Strelich's rise from wooden
shoes, hunger and sauerkraut suppers to prominence in the rugged West.
How did he do it?
"I still remember an expressionwe used many times," he explained. It boiled
down to two words: Mutual trust. A friendly handshake was all that was needed to
seal a deal, because wrestling ws hot. People could smell the money.
"San Joaquin Valley wrestling cards were pulling in the fans like crazy. I was
sure that with a larger and nicer arena, I could make a good living in this business,"
Strelich, owner of Strelich Stadium, told Eddie Lopez in a series of interviews a half
century ago. The tale explained how he became a legend when the people of
Bakersfield responded with overwhelming generosity to his sporting event
promotions with World War II war bond purchases, and in reply to his appeals to
assist the Shriners in their quest to help crippled children.
His tireless efforts to help handicapped children was significantly rewarding
to him in that everywhere he went in Bakersfield children would run up to him and
How "Peasant in a Paper Suit" happened to be published at all is a story in itself.
Lopez, the first Latino newspaper reporter in Central California history,
covered sports for the Bakersfield Californian between 1949 and 1951, interrupted
by a four-year enlistment in the Air Force.
When he returned to the Californian and his old job in 1956, Lopez asked
Strelich if he could sit down with him for a series of one-on-one interviews about his
colorful life. The resulting interviews stay buried in the busy reporter's files until
2006 when he was asked about them by retired teacher and San Joaquin Valley
historian Gilbert Gia of Bakersfield.
How did Gia come to ask Lopez about his unpublished book?
"Gia had just completed a history of Strelich Stadium ," Lopez, explained,
and mentioned it to an old Bakersfield Junior College acquaintance of his, professor
emeritus and author Gerald "Gerry" Haslam. Lopez, it turns out, had guided
Haslam, then 19 when he was a student at Bakersfield JC and stringing for the
After more than half a century later, Haslam recalled that Lopez was
working on a book about Strelich. Gia contacted Lopez and the book was re-born.
The author's note in "Peasant in a Paper Suit" reads: "This is a chronicle of
the true and life-affirming adventures of boxer, wrestler, and actor Steve Strelich.
My name appears as the author, but in reality there are four authors: Eddie Lopez,
the young reporter who interviewed Strelich in the 1950s' Strelich in his own words;
Gia, the writer and historian, and Lopez, now retired and living with his wife Angie
in Los Osos, CA.
"The book, Gia affirms, "is a monument in works about Bakersfield."
Readers of California history, fans of boxing, wrestling and marathon
Dancing, and readers who are always curious about Hollywood escapades, will
enjoy "Peasant in a Paper Suit."
It is a pleasurable read and a book that Bakersfield readers are bound to
(Mary McCorkle is a professor emeritus of Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo,
where she was head of the journalism department and was advisor to the
Cuestonian, the student newspaper.)
Get into Print
It has been said that authors do not earn a living writing books,
they earn a livelihood by selling books. In other words, all of the
creative effort, all of the sweat and tears that go into storytelling, be it
fiction or non fiction, goes down the drain if no one is interested enough
to buy what has been carefully crafted.
That said, the formula to becoming someone who can both write
and sell what is created becomes even more challenging during an
era when the printed on paper publishing world is shrinking visibly day
by day, or so it may seem. Just look what's happened so alarmingly fast
with the dramatic bankruptcy of newspapers and magazines.
The world's pool of freelance writers has gone dry and with the
budget-slashing has come decisions to drop the practice of book reviews,
unless they're written by in-house staff members; and even then, the
number of reviews is minimal at best. Some publications have stopped
all reviews period.
For aspiring writers of book the current state publishing has
become a conumdrum or puzzle: Why publish if you cannot get what
you write reviewed so people will buy it?
But perhaps, just by sheer accident, Eddie Lopez, an 83-year-old
Mexican-American author from Los Osos, CA, has the solution to the
question of how to get the print media to pay some attention to what has
happened to him.
First of all, Lopez is a retired newspaperman; in fact, his resume
itself is full of things that in themselves make for interesting reading.
For example, Lopez was a pioneer Hispanic journalist, beginning
his 44-year newspaper career in 1947 when he was 18 years old, a
journalistic journey that included assignments as a sportswriter and
features reporter, book editor-reviewer and travel editor-writer. Then
when he retired in 1991, he maintained his writing discipline by turning
out three self-published books, "Ink in My Veins" (2005), "Marching to
the Sound of Mariachi" (2007) and "Peasant in a Paper Suit" (2012).
"Ink in My Veins" and "Marching to the Sound of Mariachi,"
although both were favorably reviewed, suffered from disheartening
sales from the trunk of Lopez's car. When you self-publish, you need a
lot of friends and relatives and after those who care have lent
their loyal support, who's left? A few curious readers? Of course. Then
Write another book? No way! Why endure more heartbreak and
erosion of self esteem?
Now here's where the Lopez saga gets very interesting.
Lopez didn't have to write another book; he had already done
that half-a-century before, in the late 1950s to be specific. He began
writing "Peasant in a Paper Suit" in 1957-1958, completing that first
version in 1959. But he could not interest an agent or a publisher in his
book, so he stuck it in the bottom of a desk drawer, taking it with him
when he left the Bakersfield Californian in 1961 to join the Fresno Bee's
Now we skip ahead to 2006 when an e-mail from Gilbert Gia
appeared on Lopez's computer. Gia, a Bakersfield historian and retired
school teacher, had inquired if he had written a book about Steve
Strelich, a popular Bakersfield wrestling-boxing promoter in the 1940s,
50s and 60s. Gia had heard that he had from, Gerald Haslam, a mutual
Bakersfield acquaintance. Haslam said that Lopez did write about
Strelich but could not get his autobiographical book published.
Gia then asked Lopez if he could see a copy of the manuscript
and Lopez agreed, mailing him the only existing onionskin copy of the
manuscript. Gia's respose was so ecstatic that Lopez was convinced to
go back, and with Gia's assistance, he resurrected the "buried book".
End of story? Not quite.
After the book was finished and again an agent or publisher could
not be contacted by Lopez or Gia, Alison Strelich of Santa
Barbara contacted Gia in 2010. She had heard that a book was being
written about her husband Tom's uncle, Steve Strelich, and wanted to
know if she could have a copy of the manuscript to give to Tom for
Now to cut to the chase. Tom and Alison Strelich volunteered to
help finalize the book's formatting for a print-on-demand venture and
Tom succeeding contacting Amazon which agreed to distribute the book
That's it: A book that was begun in 1957 was published in 2012.
Count ‘em, that's 55 years.
Quite a story, isn't it?
But there's a footnote: Amazon also recently started a Spanish
Edition distribution of "Marching to the Sound of Mariachi." That's
only five years later.
Do you think Lopez has learned something about patience?
Story Behind the Story
There are times when the story behind the writing of an interesting book is
as intriguing as the book itself.
For example, consider the unusual details surrounding the publication
of "Peasant in a Paper Suit," an autobiographical memoir about an American-born
boy of Yugoslavian heritage named Stipan Strilic, who grew up to become Steve
Strelich, a lovable legend in Bakersfield.
The original manuscript of "Peasant in a Paper Suit" was first completed by
retired journalist Eddie Lopez when he was 31 years old in 1960. That's right, do
the math. That's more than a half-century ago. However, Lopez's book was never
published at first, he claims, due his lack of marketing skills.
How the manuscript was eventually rescued from oblivion and
published more than a half-century later, when Lopez was in his 80s, adds greatly to
its present appeal, and is deserving of being shared with anyone who enjoys reading
about colorful characters.
First of all, a review of Strelich's fascinating life (1903-1971) would
include experiencing a reverse immigration role, going from Bingham, Utah, to
Yugoslavia to be raised by his paternal grandparents when he was 10; returning to
the US as a young man of 18, then becoming a professional boxer and wrestler
known as the "Terrible Swede;" participating in dance marathons; acting in non-
speaking movie roles and performing stunts; serving as a double for French actor-
entertainer Maurice Chevalier; working as movie comedian Joe E. Brown's
personal trainer; serving as screen siren Mae West's bodyguard; and, finally,
becoming a professional boxing-wrestling promoter in Bakersfield, where he sold
more than $4,000,000 in War II saving bond at his sports arena. Steve also
negotiated two post WWII private interviews with Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz,
better known to the world as Marshal Tito.
If you've come to the conclusion that Strelich, pronounced variously as
STREL-ich or STREL-ick, was a handshaker and a backslapper extraordinary, you
would be right. He was born to be a humanitarian and goodwill ambassador.
Lopez began writing the Strelich saga in the mid-1950s, recreating his
rollercoaster experiences during a series of one-on-one breakfast interviews. No one
else had ever sat down with Strelich and explored where he'd been or what he'd
done before he came to Bakersfield. Other famous personalities from
Bakersfield,through the years, of course, would include former California governor
and US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, ex- pro football hero and
Monday Night TV announcer Frank Gifford, and country western singers-
musicians Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
When he finished his original as-told-to manuscript in 1960, Lopez could not
interest an agent or publisher. One year later his sports writing career shifted
to Fresno, where "Peasant in a Paper Suit" was all but forgotten in the bottom of
desk drawers until 2007 when Lopez come in contact with Gilbert Gia, his
collaborator for a book that would not die. Lopez and Gia would teamup to get the
job done – finally. They were both writers but of vastly different backgrounds.
Lopez's 44-year California journalistic career included writing for
newspapers in Santa Ana, Madera, Bakersfield and Fresno. His passion for
writing about sports lasted for 25 years, then he switched to writing features, hard
news, book reviews and travel essays. His writing passion began as a seventh-grader
when a teacher asked him if he like to write a school play. He was often described as
as child with a vivid imagination. After retiring in 1991, he wrote freelance
magazine travel articles.
Gia's literary credentials, on the other hand, included 32 years of teaching at
Bakersfield city schools before retiring in 2002, writing dozens of deeply researched
essays for several historical publications, and serving as president of the Kern
County Historical Society.
Could two men of such diverse backgrounds survive the nerve-stretching
tensions of a literary collaboration? In a word, yes. The key to their
success was mutual professional respect. They did not always see eye-to-eye but they
eventually wound up on the same page.
"Peasant in a Paper Suit," which began as a singlular point-of-view work,
patiently underwent a change of story-telling focus and emerged as an
autobiographical memoir told in four combined voices: (1) Young sportswriter
Lopez's one-on-one interviews with Strelich in the late 1950s; (2) Strelich's
recollections faithfully recorded in his own words; (3) Gia's relentless researching
skills; and (4) Lopez's reflections (he is now 83) as a retired newsman.
Gia, who had previously written a historical essay on the building of Strelich
Stadium, encountered former Cal State Sonoma English Professsor
Gerald Haslam of Oildale at a social function and mentioned his research on
Strelich. They were former Bakersfield JC classmates. Haslam told Gia he
knew Lopez had written a book about Strelich in the 1950s.
Gia contacted Lopez, who was now living in Los Osos (it was 2007), inquiring
if the book was ever published and if it was could he see a copy. Lopez said he had
one onionskin copy. Gia asked if he could see it. Lopez mailed Gia the fragile copy,
trusting any friend of Dr. Haslam on blind faith.
Gia expressed unbridled enthusiasm to Lopez upon returning the
manuscript. He would later remark to a colleague: "When I first saw Eddie's
manuscript of his conversations with Strelich, I knew it was gold."
Swept away by Gia's ecstatic response that the half-century-old manuscript's
historial value must be preserved, Lopez asked if he would help him revise
it for another run at possible publication. Gia again responded with affirmative
But, don't go away yet.
Next to enter the scenario was Alison Strelich of Santa Barbara. She wrote to
Gia in December 2010, informing him she had heard he and Lopez were
writing a book about Strelich and asked if she could see a copy. She wanted to give
it to her husband as a surprise Christmas gift.
But, of course, the revision hadn't been completed yet. Naturally, Lopez and
Gia balked at such a suggestion, even if it did come from an instructor at the Brooks
Institute of Photography. She was also an American Film Institute and BIP
But all hope was not lost for Tom and Alison Strelich, however, as Lopez
asked her if she would help edit "Peasant in a Paper Suit" for publication. She
and her husband agreed.
Alison finally got her published copy of the book in time for
Christmas - one year later. When she and Tom read parts of it to a gathering of
family and friends, she said Tom alternated between laughing and crying as his
uncle's life was unraveled.
Later when Tom first met Lopez he said, "Eddie, I learned more about my
uncle Steve from reading your book that I knew during my entire life."
Tom volunteered to format the finalized manuscript, then submitted it to
Amazon, one of the world's largest book distributors, for publication. Amazon
And that's the story behind the story.
Lopez, meanwhile, continues to sell copies of "Peasant in a Paper Suit"
($12.95 ) from the trunk of his car. He is hopeful that America's Croatian
population, 420,763 as of the 2007 US Community Survey, gets word of a tale about
a man with an amazing tale to tell.
It's a slow process but, obviously, Lopez is very
patient man. After all, he's already been waiting for more than half-a-century.