Philanthropy beat: One man, 1.8 million students, 50 years

  • Article by: Jean Hopfensperger
  • Star Tribune
  • October 31, 2011 - 4:11 PM

Fifty years ago, an optometrist from Massachusetts launched a campaign in his hometown of Fall River, asking everyone to donate $1 to send the senior high school class to college.

It was the humble beginning of a national program that has awarded $2.7 billion in scholarships to 1.8 million students since then. Called Dollars for Scholars, it is now the heart of a nonprofit called Scholarship America, based in Minnesota.

That optometrist, 90-year-old Dr. Irvin Fradkin, continues to travel across the country, preaching the critical need for aid to college students.

"When I gave out 24 scholarships in 1958, I thought that was the end of it,'' Fradkin said during a visit to the Twin Cities last week. "I never expected this.''

Fradkin is among the rare philanthropists able to witness the impact of his work a half century later. Dollars for Scholars donors ranged from Eleanor Roosevelt to journalist Katie Couric, who is donating the proceeds of her book "The Best Advice I Ever Got.''

Meanwhile, scholarship recipients have appeared at the most unexpected times over the years, Fradkin said. Twenty years ago, when he suffered a heart attack, his hospital nurse asked, "Do you know me?'' he recalled. Turns out, she was awarded Dollars for Scholars, and said, "You came along and helped me. I will help you.''

The scholarship agency wound up in Minnesota because of a grant from the Bush Foundation in the 1980s. The grant paid for the construction of a national headquarters in St. Peter.

Scholarship America now has three projects: Dollars for Scholars, serving 3,500 communities across the country; Scholarship Management Services, which manages about 1,100 community and business scholarship programs; and Dreamkeepers, which helps students facing unexpected financial emergencies.

For Fradkin, is it finally time to rest?

"Never!'' said Fradkin. "There's so much more work to be done.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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