The Man Who Started It All:
Irving Fradkin and Dollars for Scholars

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01 Jan 2011
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As Scholarship America gears up to celebrate our 50th Anniversary, we look back at Dr. Irving Fradkin, the man whose dream ignited our organization.

This year, 2011, Scholarship America® will be celebrating our 50th anniversary. Over the past five decades, we have helped students in communities from Maine to California overcome financial barriers in the way of their dream of earning a college degree. When the organization originated in 1961, the cost of education wasn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds. College tuition was a fraction of what it is today. However, America saw a huge need for an educated citizenry, and for many middle class families, paying for college was simply not a priority. As the number of jobs that required educated workers increased, so did students’ desire for a college education -- something that their parents hadn’t set aside money for, and something many just couldn’t afford.

In 1958, in Fall River, Mass., Dr. Irving Fradkin, a young optometrist with a new practice, was one of the first in the nation to notice a discrepancy between a student’s desire to go to college and their family’s ability to pay for it. When high school students from the town came in to have their eyes examined, Dr. Fradkin would ask what their dreams and hopes were for the future. Many would tell him they were planning on dropping out, or that the furthest they would go was graduation. They told the doctor that they would have to move out of Fall River and get a blue-collar job in nearby Boston. "They simply had no idea that there was more out there for them," Dr. Fradkin recalls.

This troubled the doctor. Had it not been for a hip injury from one too many games of football in high school, he would have followed in the footsteps of his father to become a baker. But because standing on his feet all day was no longer an option for Irv, he was given the opportunity to sit back and really consider what he wanted for his life and for a career.

"I became an optometrist because I wanted everyone to see," Dr. Fradkin explained during a recent phone conversation. "I thought, 'this is what I want to do with my life,' and I was able to develop a gift because of a college education. I wanted the same for these kids -- to be so much happier and so much better off."

But no matter how much he encouraged his young patients, they almost always replied -- we can’t afford it. People in Fall River earned an average of $3,000 a year in 1958. They lived hand to mouth, and their families simply couldn’t set aside any money to send their kids to college.

An idea came to Dr. Fradkin. "I said to myself, 'Tuition is only $200. If a student knew that he had that amount of money set aside for his education, he would stay in school and not drop out. He would go on to college, and his future -- his family, his community, America -- would be better off.'"

"There’s a whole wide world out their for these kids to discover. Whoever heard of cell phones or computers or airplanes? All these things came because somebody used their gifts to do something different than what they saw. Everybody should be given this opportunity."

Dr. Fradkin decided that the way to get Fall River on board was to start right in the schools. So he decided to run for school board on the platform of higher education for young people -- and then lost. Shortly after the election, Dr. Fradkin recalls his receptionist’s young son saying to him, "Too bad you lost the election, because kids like me just lost the opportunity for an education." It was in that moment when Irv decided he wouldn’t stop working to help young people go to college.

Dr. Fradkin signs copies of his memoir in 2009

Dr. Fradkin knew that if every one of the 30,000 households in Fall River gave $1 (just $7.57 in 2011 dollars), it would be enough to send every graduating Fall River senior to college. He printed cards and asked people for $1 donations to become "members." He organized a committee, and the local bank allowed him to set up tables in the back to solicit its members. When people came in to make a deposit, the bank would ask them if they would like to donate $1. And they did.

A few stories from that time stick out in Dr. Fradkin’s mind.

"One day, a truck driver stopped me on the side of the street to give me a couple of dollars because he wanted to help young people achieve more than he had. Soon after that, a man walked into my office. 'I work in a mill; it’s a terrible job, a tough job. I only have fifty cents, but when I get another fifty cents I will bring it to you. I want people to get an education and not be stuck in a job like mine.'" It was a story he heard over and over.

Dr. Fradkin also remembers the biggest early donation coming from one of his patients, who was also the owner of a company. "He said, 'Irv, I can’t hire people from Fall River; they don’t have the education. This would give me the opportunity to hire people right here who are qualified to work for my organization. Here’s $300. If you want to come to our place of business, you can ask my employees to also donate.' And you know what? Every single person working for that company donated, and that was another $300 for Dollars for Scholars."

After four months, the committee had raised $4,500. They got together and decided to write letters to prominent members in government, including President Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt. "Shortly after that, a letter came to us from Mrs. Roosevelt, with $1 and a request to become a member."

During that first year, even after everyone told him it was impossible, Dr. Fradkin raised enough money to give out 24 scholarships, each renewable for four years. Dollars for Scholars was officially born. By 1960, Dr. Fradkin had started 11 Dollars for Scholars chapters in New England. In 1961, the organization we know today as Scholarship America was officially established.

In 2010, Dr. Fradkin was still out in the community of Fall River, helping raise funds for Dollars for Scholars

Fifty years later, Dr. Fradkin still lives in Fall River. Though he has long been retired from optometry, he’s never stopped lobbying for higher education. At nearly 90 years young, Dr. Fradkin fills his days with phone calls to prominent Fall River citizens, visits to local elementary schools to talk about the importance of staying in school, keeping up-to-date with higher ed news, and sharing new ideas and thoughts with Scholarship America headquarters. He’s also busy winning awards.

In October, Dr. Fradkin won the National College Access Network’s (NCAN) 2010 Champion of College Access award. NCAN’s Champion for College Access award recognizes an individual, organization, or corporation who has make remarkable contributions to "Changing the Face of Education."

Like many others lucky enough to live to 89 (and counting), Dr. Fradkin longs for a time when things weren’t quite as violent, quite as troubling -- when you could leave your house and your car unlocked, and when the biggest reason kids were disciplined was for running in the halls or chewing gum. He recognizes that the need for kids to stay in school, graduate and go on to college has never been greater, and frequently speaks about the importance of education for America as a whole, especially during the last few years of economic downturn.

"Education is the number one way to combat poverty, crime and economic disparity. Every young person has god’s gift in them. If you give that person a dream or hope -- the opportunity for a better life -- they won’t dropout, they won’t join a gang, they won’t go to jail. Instead, they’ll become a productive member of society. Their community will improve, they’ll contribute more to the economy, and most importantly, America will be rewarded."

Unfortunately, with tuition at an all time high, it’s never been more difficult for a student from a low- or even middle-income family to afford to go to college. "Education is going to become more valuable, more necessary, but also more expensive," Dr. Fradkin says. Scholarship America, he believes, can be the foremost organization in this country to support young people throughout their entire educational journey.

He adds,"To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, 'you cannot perpetuate your freedom in a civilization unless the future of our country -- its young people -- have a chance for an education.' We the people can make a difference."

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