a legacy in bloom

Ned's Southside Kitchen

by anna rabhan
Joseph A. Strasser could never be president. Other than that, you’d never know he wasn’t born in this country. His accent is very American, he likes to wear T-shirts and he calls to mind the kindly spirit of Wilford Brimley. –Make no mistake, though, he loves his country as some would argue only an immigrant can, and it shows in the way he considers philanthropy his duty.
Joseph Strasser was born in Austria eight years before Hitler took the country over and sent young Joseph’s father to a concentration camp. By some miracle, his mother was able to free his father and the family left Austria. The situation in Vichy-controlled France was only marginally better. Although together again, the family was not permitted to leave France together – only the children were allowed egress. Their parents surely feared for the future of Joseph and his younger brother, Alex, so the boys were sent to an aunt in the U.S. who put them in boarding school. It was the first time Joseph had ever been to school. Some time after the liberation of France, Joseph’s father arrived in the States with a box of ashes. They never spoke of how or even exactly where his mother died.
With such a history, it’s no wonder that the boy whose hero was General MacArthur grew up wanting to serve his country in the military. At Syracuse University, he joined the ROTC because, he says, “I wanted to give back to my country … that was my whole goal in life even then.” He was selected to be in the Finance Corps, an honor that would influence his eventual career choice, and, after graduation and army finance school, went on active duty in Germany. His father, who didn’t favor the military, had made him promise that he wouldn’t make a career of it, though, so when the time to re-enlist arrived, he honored that promise and returned to the U.S., although he continued to serve in the Army Reserve for 15 more years and retired as major.
By the time his active service ended, Strasser had discovered the love and companionship of animals, which would figure centrally in his future philanthropy, and had adopted a German boxer he named Ike – after the president, of course. “His nickname was Mr. President,” Strasser recounts, “Like most dog owners, you see things that maybe never happened, but when you called him ‘Mr. President’ his little stubby tail wiggled. It probably never did, but in my eyes it did.” Ike was dog-napped while Strasser was attending law school in Chicago and, devastated, he decided to leave the city and return home to New York. In 1958, he graduated from the number one public affairs graduate school in the country, the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Although no longer in the military, he was determined to find another way of doing what was important to him. “America gave me my life,” he says, “and I wanted to serve.”
His finance training would open doors to several local government budget and finance positions throughout the next few years. Strasser received the Professional Achievement Recognition award from the Professional Government Finance Officers Association several times and was professionally recognized by the Government Officers of Financial Institutions as well as the City/County Managers Association several times during his long career. One accomplishment he’s particularly proud of is his role in the creation of the first civilian fiscal administrator posts within police and fire departments in several cities, including Jacksonville through the ’80s. This, and several other measures taken by the city at that time, were necessary, Strasser says, to “take politics out of it” and provide some oversight in the public interest. “I believed in getting things done efficiently … I love government, but it’s got to be efficient.” He’s also quite proud of the fact that the sheriff’s office stayed within budget during his six-year tenure and that fire/rescue did the same during his nine years as civilian chief there.
It’s not surprising, then, to hear the hurt in his voice when he talks about being let go in 1991 because, as he was told, he was too old and made too much money. During his career, Strasser had indeed amassed a small fortune, but from land investments, not his salary as a government employee. At 59 he might have retired in relative comfort, especially after later winning two lawsuits in which he was awarded his leave time and damages for age discrimination – that is, if comfort had ever been his goal. “Now all of a sudden, I [wasn’t] making a difference any more,” says Strasser, “I’d made a difference all my life … The question is, ‘What do you do now? Where do you make a difference?'” So he decided to make a difference by moving in with a friend’s mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s in order to take care of her for seven-and-a half years. In this way, he believes he helped save his friend’s marriage.
Meanwhile, he had also begun making a difference through philanthropy. He had given a large sum to his beloved Maxwell School for the Joseph A. Strasser Academic Village, which, he says, “is the home away from home for graduate students” and for the Joseph A. Strasser commons, an atrium which connects two halls at the University. The funds he donated are also used for scholarships and professorships at the school. In Jacksonville, he served on the board of the Jacksonville Humane Society and donated the funds for its Joseph A. Strasser courtyard.
His heart was still in local government, though, and every year he would go to city budget hearings. In 2006, he went in order to protest the millage and tax rates and heard the debate over giving city funds to a nature park called Tree Hill (www.treehill.org). Impressed with the argument of the Deputy Director of Parks & Recreation, he looked into Tree Hill. “When I went out there, and saw the place, I became convinced that we had the best of a good park system.”
In 2007, a Tree Hill board member who had also served with Strasser on the Humane Society’s board invited him to be a sponsor of Tree Hill’s annual Butterfly Festival and, in 2008, he joined Tree Hill’s board. Tree Hill has 50 acres of trails and gardens and encompasses three ecosystems. It also had a feature that Strasser believed could improve Tree Hill’s utility, accessibility and finances. The property’s amphitheatre could not be rented due to the state it was in, so he donated the funds to completely renovate the amphitheatre and replace the main gate. He also pledged a sizeable sum for six years to support operation and maintenance. In February 2009, with Strasser once again to be title sponsor of the annual Butterfly Festival, the Joseph A. Strasser amphitheatre was dedicated.
The amphitheatre has a capacity of 250 and can be rented for weddings, corporate events, family reunions and all manner of other activities. You can hear the pride in Strasser’s voice when he talks about a recent wedding at the amphitheatre: “The bridal party and the bride went down the steps, and they couldn’t have gone down the steps without the [improvements] I had planned.” He is clearly proud of the difference he’s made for Jacksonville at Tree Hill, but he’s also concerned for the future. “The city has cut us five grand. I don’t know what we’re going to do. There’s a limit to what I can do, but Tree Hill is a fantastic organization.”
Joseph Strasser’s love of animals has only grown through the years. He’s quick to list the names of eight beloved pets that he’s buried at the Jacksonville Humane Society, five of which had been adopted from there. His voice strains as he discusses the plight of homeless animals in Jacksonville. Strasser had worked for several years with the Humane Society, but had come to realize “… you can’t build enough facility to house all the adoptable pets.” First Coast No More Homeless Pets, a nonprofit organization whose mission, according to their website (www.fcnmhp.org), is “to eliminate the killing of dogs and cats in our community through free and low-cost spay and neuter programs” was renting a temporary facility on University Boulevard and had offices at Regency Mall. They had located a warehouse space they wanted to renovate and, with bank loans and city money temporarily tied up in red tape, approached Strasser who donated the funds to purchase and renovate the space. He was excited to do something with so many benefits, especially for the Northside community that is now home to FCNHP.
“Number one, we took an eyesore of a building, and we made it into a state-of-the-art building … Number two, we created construction jobs. Number three, we created additional jobs because we quintupled the number of spaying and neutering we had, so we actually hired more people, some of whom came from that neighborhood. Number four, and most important, that is the solution to pet overpopulation. You can’t stop the killing of animals until you reduce the number of animals to the number of people who are willing, able to adopt.”
The first thing that strikes you when you visit the Joseph A. Strasser Animal Health and Welfare building at 6817 Norwood Avenue is its size. The 16,000 square foot facility, which was dedicated in May of this year, includes a garage with three transport vehicles and bathing area; a laundry, kennels and recovery rooms; an enormous surgery bay with state-of-the-art oxygen delivery system; 4,000 square feet of office space, conference room and call center; and a semi-independent, low-cost vet clinic. Such a massive operation is fitting considering the goal founder and president, Rick DuCharme, has in mind. “Before us,” DuCharme says, “26,000 dogs and cats died a year in Duval County. Now it’s less than 11,000 and we want to reach ‘no kill’ within five to seven years.” DuCharme is quick to point out Strasser’s role in the organization’s success: “… that’s something that we couldn’t have done without him, not at this point, not without Joseph Strasser’s help. … [He] was our first lifetime member and he’s on our board and he comes to all the board meetings and always has input.” The final word on what the place means to Mr. Strasser is the fact that the portrait in the lobby is not just of him. He shares the frame with General, his beloved German shepherd, who passed away almost two years ago.
For the future, Strasser plans to continue his work with Syracuse University, Tree Hill, and First Coast No More Homeless Pets and, possibly, the Humane Society. As is befitting his character, Strasser says he only wishes he had more money so he could do much more. “This is making a difference. This is what I believe in.”