Dr. Irving Fradkin, the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of college scholarships

From one dollar
to one billion
From one dollar to one billion


Dr. Irving Fradkin /Arthur C. NormanFALL RIVER, Mass. – In 1958, a young optometrist in Fall River saw a need: The children of poor and working class parents were unable to afford college. Dr. Irving Fradkin saw a waste of talent and potential and set out to fill that need. He started selling one dollar memberships to what became Scholarship America, the parent of thousands of local chapters of Dollars for Scholars (see the Aug.2 issue of The Jewish Voice for related stories, “Dispersed Hope High alums help send kids to college” and “An American dreamer). Three billion dollars and two million scholars later, Dr. Fradkin sat for an interview with The Jewish Voice. Excerpts follow:


Q. This all started in 1958; what got you going 55 years ago?

A. I started helping my father in his bakery and intended to stay in that business. I hurt my hip playing football in school and could no longer be a baker. So I started taking college courses that, eventually, turned me into an optometrist. Being on crutches gave me a compassion for other people, people who have difficulties.

Once I graduated, and believing in tikkum olam, I saw this as a way to help make the world a better place. [The late] Sam Levenson (the famed Jewish comedian and raconteur of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s) met me and gave me the name “the optimistic optometrist.”

Q. Why did he call you that?

A. Because I see this [the national scholarship program] not as an optometrist program but as a way to help people and to make a better world. I realized that if I never had had an education, I couldn’t become an optometrist, I couldn’t make a living, I couldn’t help others. It’s about people.

Every time I had a high school kid as a patient, I asked what they wanted to do, but when they told me they had to drop out of school to help support their family or had no money to go to college, I said to myself that if everyone in Fall River gave a dollar, then every high school graduate could afford to go to college. I ran for school board – and lost. But I went to the school board, the newspaper and the local rabbi and told them of my plans. They were astonished – ‘you want to raise $1000?!’ I told them we wouldn’t know if we could if we didn’t try.

I sold one dollar memberships to what became Dollars for Scholars. One by one, community and business leaders gave money and, instead of the initial plan to give 15 scholarships, we were able to give 24. The deal with the kids was that, if they received a scholarship, they would, if they could, give back to their own community when they graduated. And we had great results!

My brother helped me start the second chapter in Pittsfield, Mass. Once people and corporations knew that the money they raised and gave [in their own community] was going to stay in their own community, they were happy [and] eager to give. Then Barrington, then Bristol, then Warren (all Rhode Island towns) wanted chapters and, by 1960 we had 11 chapters. (Fradkin smiles broadly when he speaks about how the Scholarship America program started to spread across the country in 1960.) We now have more than 1,000 chapters across America.

Q. Are the chapters and programs just for public school kids?

A. No. We added kids in the parochial schools. They are all God’s children, aren’t they? It doesn’t make a difference to me. We started an interfaith council in Fall River because we felt that by getting people of all groups together, it would break down barriers.

Q. You’ve helped so many people.  Who has helped you along the way?

A. My wife Charlotte, my bashert (destined partner), is my best helper. I traveled a lot. It was difficult for her. Had she said to stop, I would have stopped, but she supported me in everything I did. Charlotte is my biggest helper.

Q. What motivates you to keep doing this after all these years?

A. Tzedakah (giving, giving back) and tikkun olam. That’s what motivates me. The purpose for doing this is to leave things better than you found it.  Give kids a dream and hope and you’ll make a better country.

Q. You’ve accomplished so much. Some would say it’s time to slow down, make time to relax, to spend more time with your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but now you’re involved in a new venture. Tell us about that.

A. The American Dream Challenge is a writing contest designed to help kids stay in school. I saw kids, 13- and 14-year-old kids and saw them dropping out and giving up … I started [the  program] in fourth grade … something they would have to think about.  What is the value of country? What is patriotism?  I wanted them to know that they could earn [vouchers for] money in fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth [grades] … vouchers that they could not cash in until they show a college acceptance letter.  The acceptance was amazing!  Very exciting!

Q. Do any individual stories stand out of scholarship kids coming back to thank you?

A. I had a serious heart attack in 1988 and I was in intensive care … and this pretty nurse came over to me. ‘Do you know who I am? I’m Pauline (DeMello) Sardina.  I was the seventh of eight children – no money to go to school. I wanted to become a nurse. My father was not working and along you came with a scholarship. I’m going to help you now. I’m going to help you get better.’

(Dr. Fradkin mentioned in a preliminary phone conversation that he was hoping to get to see Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi to put a Dollars for Scholars chapter in every high school in Providence.)

Q. How’s that going?

A. If I’m able to see them, I’ll be able to show them that this program will help reduce crime, gang violence and help raise taxes.  [It’s] simple. More education, better communities. When people work with their elected officials, that’s how democracy is supposed to work. I’d like to get the message out to the Mayor, to the parents, to the kids that every kid can live the American dream.  God doesn’t make junk! Every kid can succeed. If you give that brain a dream and hope and support, there’s no telling how far they can go.

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve received?

A. That’s easy. Joe Martins, the former superintendent of schools in Fall River, now on the Fall River school board [says] his whole dream is  ‘give these kids a pathway, show them it can be done.’ That’s good advice.

Q. What advice do you have for the student or parent who may be struggling financially?

A. You have God’s gift. You can make a difference for yourself, your family, your community and your country. Get the best education you can. You will have a much better life and be able to live the American dream, as I have.

Q. You’re always on the go, speaking to groups, starting new chapters, being interviewed.  How do you relax?

A. I’m doing it. I’m doing what I love. I’m married to a wonderful woman for 66 years. I have three kids, four grandkids and nine great-grandchildren.  Can you be any richer than that?

Editor’s note: Subsequent to this interview, Irving Fradkin was interviewed in New York City on Sept.17 by Katie Couric for her national television show – as of this writing, the on-air date has not been an-nounced.