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In Memoriam: Joseph Strasser, ‘Forever an Important Figure in our History’

September 27, 2021

He was among the Maxwell School’s most generous benefactors.

Joseph Strasser ’53 B.A. (Hist)/’58 M.P.A./’20 Hon. was just 8 years old when he and his brother arrived in New York aboard a Kindertransport rescue ship with only the clothes on their backs. They had escaped Nazi persecution following the Third Reich’s invasion of their home county, Austria.

Their father, Paul, was not as fortunate. He was sent to a concentration camp.

The boys were taken in by an aunt in Queens and cared for until 1941, when Paul made it to the states and reunited with them following a cross-Pyrenees escape. He carried with him a box containing their mother’s ashes. She had died from illness after seeking refuge in France, he explained, but said little more.

Memories from that time faded like an old photograph, but the pain of losing a parent at such an early age was never far from the surface for Joseph Strasser. What could have turned him inward or festered   bitterness instead inspired a life motivated by the   pursuit of education, public service and more than anything else, the drive to improve the lives of others.

Joseph Strasser was among the Maxwell School’s most generous supporters, having donated more than   $7 million to benefit its students, faculty and schoolwide priorities. He died at age 89 on Sept. 12 following   a lengthy illness.

“I can think of no one who better embodied the Maxwell spirit,” said Maxwell School Dean David M. Van Slyke. “Public service was at the core of who Joe Strasser was, as was his desire to use his means to make life better and provide more opportunity for others. He will forever be an important figure in our history. Not only is he among the most charitable donors of all time across all areas of our School, but his professional public service has helped define the discipline and is a quintessential Maxwell story.” 

“I can think of no one who better embodied the Maxwell spirit. Public service was at the core of who Joe Strasser was, as was his desire to use his means to make life better and provide more opportunity for others.”

David M. Van Slyke

Maxwell School Dean

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, Strasser served as a finance officer in the U.S.  Army during the Korean conflict. He then returned to Maxwell and received a master of public administration.

Strasser was the first budget officer of Savannah, Georgia, where he was nominated as Young Man of the Year for saving DeKalb County a quarter of a million dollars. He later served the city of Jacksonville, Florida, as budget officer, where, among many other achievements, he introduced civilian, professionally trained fiscal administrators into fire and police departments. Strasser served in various fiscal posts and found success as a land investor in Jacksonville until he retired in 1996.

Strasser devoted himself to causes close to his heart: education, homeless pets, parks and recreational programs. He was a member of the board of Tree Hill, a 50-acre nature park in his Jacksonville, Florida, hometown; he donated funds to renovate the park’s amphitheater— which is named for him—and replace its main gate and provide for operation and maintenance. He supported First Coast No More Homeless Pets, whose veterinary clinic is now located in the Joseph A. Strasser Animal Health and Welfare Building in Jacksonville.

At the Maxwell School, his gifts funded a variety of schoolwide priorities, including upgrades and renovations to a multi-use public events room—renamed the Dr. Paul and Natalie Strasser Legacy Room in honor of Joseph’s parents. The central atrium, connecting Maxwell’s two main buildings, is named the Joseph A. Strasser Commons. A large study/meeting space for students in public administration and international affairs is named the Strasser Academic Village, and he established the Strasser Endowed Scholarship Fund that supports top Maxwell graduate students.

In 2018, he endowed a professorship in public administration. Tina Nabatchi serves as the inaugural Joseph A. Strasser Endowed Professor in Public Administration.

“Mr. Strasser has led an incredible life—one filled with honor and dignity and kindness and generosity—despite trauma and heartbreak,” said Nabatchi, who joined Van Slyke in supporting Strasser’s nomination to receive an honorary doctorate.

The degree was awarded in October 2020. “Our Chancellor talks about alumni ‘bleeding Orange,’” said Van Slyke during a virtual event. “I can’t think of an alumnus who is more pro-Syracuse than Joe Strasser. He has been so generous with his time, his energy, his expertise and philanthropy. It has benefitted the Maxwell School, our faculty and our students in really amazing and sustainable ways.”

Van Slyke said Strasser spoke of the fact that his father and brother, Alexander, were doctors. That made the honorary doctorate especially meaningful, said Van Slyke. “I think one of the things Joe always aspired to was to demonstrate to them that he also was both a learned man and that he was having an impact on the lives of others,” he said.

It was not the first time Strasser was honored by his alma mater. His numerous awards included the University’s top award for alumni accomplishment, the George Arents Award.

In 2015, Strasser described his family’s difficult immigration to America and its lessons. “It’s an amazing thing that we’re here,” he said. “What this drove into me, all along, was to give back, because we wouldn’t have been here if people hadn’t done that for us.” 

By Jessica Youngman

Published in the Winter 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective

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