Activist nurtures faith in goal of higher education for all

Interview / Irving Fradkin

Irving Fradkin is sitting in a booth at the Highland Spa Restaurant surrounded by clippings from his years as the founder of Dollars for Scholars and his usual coffee and grilled cheese. He offers half of his sandwich in exchange for half of an interviewer's tuna - then swiftly saddles the conversation with a professor's gravity.

"[It] is pure democracy in action," he says of his grass-roots movement that today ranks as the largest private-sector, nonprofit scholarship organization in America.

Suddenly, Dr. Fradkin leans across the table, and his voice grows whimsical as he confesses that he likes to see young people in love.

Just as quickly, he turns into Alexis de Tocqueville at the blackboard."We want to change the attitude of the country," he says. "[America's youth] don't know how lucky they are. They have to understand they have a responsibility to perpetuate the freedom they enjoy."

The moment reflects the quirky mix of passion and neighborly candor that led Fradkin in 1958 to start a scholarship fund for financially needy students. More recently, he has put that drive to work as the creative force behind a program that aims to reach kids well before college is even a thought.

Fradkin launched his first fund by asking people in Fall River, Mass., to contribute one dollar - and received his first donation from Eleanor Roosevelt, along with a letter of support. Three years later, Dollars for Scholars became a national movement. Last year, more than 850 chapters across the country handed out more than $100 million in scholarships.

But Fradkin, who retired from optometry last summer, was not satisfied.

His newest venture, the American Dream Challenge, is an annual essay contest in Fall River for fourth-, sixth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders, that awards college trusts. Started in 1994 and sponsored by the Citizen Scholarship Foundation of America (CSFA) - the umbrella group that includes Dollars for Scholars and other initiatives - Fradkin hopes it, too, will eventually go national.

The American Dream Challenge may target a different age group, but it adheres to Fradkin's commitment to community. Like Dollars for Scholars, it is run by local volunteers - Fradkin's way of strengthening community ties.

"I'm not that magnanimous to think that I'll help someone I don't know," says Fradkin, who spent decades on a hectic circuit of meetings, lectures, and fundraising efforts. He estimates that he has been around the world seven times. "But if that person gives something back to the community, then the whole program is worth it."

As Fradkin works through his clippings over lunch, several people give a nod to the doctor, who has lived in Fall River with his wife, Charlotte, since establishing his practice in 1943. His father, a Russian Jew, immigrated to the United States in 1912 and five years later sent for his family.

Although patriotism usually wanes in the second generation, Fradkin, one of seven children born into his Chelsea, Mass. family, has maintained his. At the same time, he understands young people's disenchantment. "There's nothing to excite them ... about this country," he says. "When was the last time you heard a song or a television show praising this country?"

But when pressed to name something or someone who has inspired him, he pauses. He considers Andrew Carnegie - because he recently saw a TV biography about the philanthropist. Then he suggests Bill Gates as a model of giving. Yet with his patriotic zeal and tenacious faith in education, Fradkin hardly needs a role model.

Like a true American, he puts the challenge of getting younger kids excited about education and their future (something that the American Dream Challenge strives to do) into market terms. "There's nothing in America you can't sell. But the American dream is not being sold."

There's another subtext to his work. "Everything you do - something triggers it," he says when asked about the path that led him to optometry and simultaneouslyrunning a foundation (a schedule that was often difficult for his family).

What triggered many of Fradkin's important decisions was a high school hip injury that left him with a limp. He was in casts and on crutches during his late-teenage years, and says that while most boys were dating, he was learning to empathize with people who had disadvantages.

Later on this day, he fields eight phone calls at his home in the span of an hour. A couple of them are from family: his grandson, whose wife is expecting twins, and his son -also an optometrist. But several calls come from colleagues involved in the American Dream Challenge. Answering in a sing-song voice, Fradkin eagerly dispenses suggestions about such things as potential heroes for an educational packet he is putting together, set to be published next fall.

His wife of 54 years smiles and quips: "He is retired, it says here in fine print."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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