CLEARWATER — She came into their lives 20 years ago and left suddenly this fall.
In the weeks before she died, Nancy Strick, a well-loved waitress at Olga’s Restaurant Diner on Belcher Road, complained to friends and coworkers of a consistent pain in her lower back.
Strick, 61, left behind a host of friends and appreciative customers at Olga’s, the longtime family restaurant at 1449 S. Belcher Road. Her friends and colleagues say she was short in stature but had a big personality, an important asset in a popular family restaurant where the pace can get jumpin’.
I recently had breakfast at Olga’s, asking customers and waitresses to describe what made Strick such a special member of the Clearwater community.
Server Carrie Valltos had worked with Nancy for years; she calls Nancy “a lot of fun” and said she had a playful side that customers liked.
“She was chatty with customers, a joker, and said anything that came to mind, even if it sounded a little direct,” Valltos said.
Heather Myers, another veteran waitress, said Nancy could hold her own with impatient customers. “One of her peeves was probably that people wanting her to come and get their orders right away, they’d say, ‘We’re in a hurry!’ And she’d tell them, ‘Next time, come earlier, we are open at 6 a.m. They’d laugh.’”
“Or she’d tell them, ‘Your toast is coming, but so is Christmas!’” Valltos said.
Waitresses keep working as they recount how spirited Nancy could be.
“She brought me in some coffee cake one morning,” Valltos said as she grabs a coffee pot for customers. “It was just so incredible.”
“That’s because she just liked Carrie so much,” another waitress injects.
Later that morning Nancy and Carrie got in a small dispute.
“All of a sudden, she comes behind the counter, grabs my coffee cake like this (she mimics Nancy holding a sheet of coffee cake with both hands) and throws it in the trash!” she laughed. “She says, ‘I bought this coffee cake and Carrie can’t have any of it!’”
The memory had other waitresses and nearby customers laughing.
“She threw it in the garbage so nobody could have coffee cake,” Myers laughs. “She threw it with such commitment and everything; she put her whole body into it!”
“They quickly made up in like five minutes,” another waitress says. “Everybody, including Nancy and Carrie, had a good laugh. Friends don’t hold grudges.”
They had so much fun with the pugnacious and friendly Nancy at work that they would invite her on weekend outings to the beach at Fort DeSoto Park, zip lining in the woods, and shopping.
She held her customers close, too.
Kelly Persinger, who grew up in Clearwater (she moved here when she was 11) received the Nancy treatment.
“I met her a couple of years ago, when my parents and I started coming to Olga’s all the time,” Persinger says. “She was funny and always asked how I was. She was a great lady; she made the best cookies.”
“That’s right!” a nearby waitress interjects. “They were raspberry, very good.”
“She made them for my birthday last year,” Persinger says. “She would bring them in to me, they were shortbread with raspberry, oh my gosh, they were good. She was so generous!”
Her fellow waitresses said if regular customers hadn’t come into the restaurant for a while, Nancy would ask after them, checking on them at home or visiting sick customers in the hospital, taking them food or cookies.
Clearwater resident Dennis Helgeson is a route salesman, providing bread and other baking products to grocery stores. A native of Rockford, Illinois, he moved to the city when he was 22. He started coming to Olga’s as part of an unofficial breakfast club that visits different restaurants. They always arrived for breakfast at 7 a.m., a half-hour before Nancy started her shift. They always had a waitress by the time Nancy came on. That didn’t spare them the Nancy treatment, however.
“She’d always tease us with a pot of coffee — telling us, ‘this coffee looks good, right?’ — acting like she wasn’t allowed to wait on us,” Helgeson says. “She was a character like that. She always greeted you by your name, she was always interested in your life.”
Then came the morning in September, when Helgeson and other customers realized that Nancy wasn’t coming by their table with a coffee pot and menus.
“She wasn’t there when she was supposed to be, so I asked the other waitresses, where was she at?” Helgeson said. “They told me she was having eye surgery.”
The eye surgery was not dangerous, but the back pain that Nancy began to experience after the procedure was a puzzle.
She and her fellow waitresses didn’t think much of it, believing it to be a case of sciatica. After all, lower back pain is a professional hallmark for restaurant workers, who do more heavy lifting than people realize.
Then came the morning at home when she could barely get on her feet. After doctors at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater performed an MRI, they gave her devastating news: She had stage 4 cancer and had very little time left.
She was gone within little more than a week, dying on a Saturday in September. But she didn’t die alone; a woman who did not want to be named in the article said she was with her when she died.
Nancy reportedly lived alone but had many friends. A studied attempt to find living relatives had come up short. According to friends and coworkers, Strick was an orphan whose adoptive parents had passed away. A brother had also preceded her in death.
Meanwhile, Nancy’s customers expressed sadness at her passing.
Donald Mercer has been coming to Olga’s for years, ever since he moved to the On Top of the World community. He recently bought a house not far from Olga’s Restaurant.
He remembered Nancy fondly.
“If Nancy knew I had an issue, she would ask ‘How are you doing, how are you feeling?’ Early in the morning, she’d be the only waitress here and she’d wait on me.”
Sometimes a unique person passes our way, enlightening our lives, teaching us with their humor and helping the weakest among us. Then, as quickly as they arrive, these special people are gone.
Mercer pauses to think.
“Life is short, isn’t it? We’re here one day, then we’re not,” he said.
Yes, but when we’re lucky, someone will befriend us and make the world worth waking up to.