For Joseph A. Strasser , life is a numbers game. The successful financier and philanthropist budgeted many years of his life to building a career in finance and public administration. He’s now the subject of a 13-minute documentary that details and preserves the legacy of an unusual life well-lived.
Directed by Ana Paula Habib and Isaac Brown, “The Legacy of Joseph A. Strasser” recounts his story, beginning with his escape from the Holocaust and immigration to the United States as a small child. The film will be screened October 24 at the Wilson Center for the Arts.
The event will honor his life, surviving the hardship of fleeing Nazi Germany as a child and achieving success through perseverance and hard work. It’s difficult to condense such a remarkable life into such a slim timeframe, but Strasser’s story embodies the American Immigrant Dream.
“America is a great country. It opens its doors to immigrants, and, one way or another, we are all immigrants,” says Strasser, who served in the U.S. Army. “We can all have our differences, but why do we have to fight amongst ourselves?”
Strasser’s own childhood recollections as a Jewish refugee during World War II are faded like an old photograph, yellowed with time and age. Strasser, 87, was just 8 years old in 1940 when he arrived in America. It was the same year his mother died. Those memories have also faded into the ether, though he never forgot the pain of growing up without her.
His father Paul never spoke of the past when he reunited with his sons Joseph and Alex in New York a year later, he says. The Strasser brothers were among a group of about 25 children on a rescue ship that arrived in New York in December 1940.
Their father never explained how he escaped the Nazis or the circumstances of his wife’s death. When he arrived, he was carrying a box containing his mother’s Natalie’s ashes. The pain of losing his mother at such a young age inspired his dedication to his own education and ensuring educational opportunities for those less fortunate.
“I’ve done some good. I know what it’s like to grow up without a mother. I lost my mother when I was 8 years old, and she was 33,” remarks Strasser, who never married or had children of his own. “There is nothing more important to a child.”
Strasser was born in Vienna, Austria, where he spent his early years. His father and later his brother were doctors and his mother, Natalie, was a native of Poland who spoke six languages. In March 1938, the Third Reich annexed Austria. It was during that year Paul Strasser was sent to a concentration camp.
The boys arrived in New York with only the clothes on their backs, Strasser says. An aunt put them in a boarding school in Queens, and they began attending public school once their father got to New York.
Strasser graduated from Syracuse University in 1953 with a degree in history, and returned after serving in the U.S. Army, earning a master’s degree in public administration from its Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in 1958.
“I graduated in my Second Lieutenant’s uniform and went on active duty in July a month after I graduated college. I was so happy to stand there with my father. I was proud to be an officer in the United States Army,” he recalls.
His early struggles inspired a strong work ethic to persevere, do well, and make his parents proud. Education was the cornerstone of that commitment. “If we hadn’t been on that ship, we would never have made it out,” says Strasser, a Jacksonville resident since the late 1960s who planned to follow his family into the medical field but struggled to understand organic chemistry. “I went on my own way, selecting courses that I was interested in and I was good at. I think my success has been finding a way to do the job. Nobody handed anything to me. I was a pioneer.”
He held several local government budget and finance jobs in Wichita, KS, and was the first-ever budget officer in Savannah, GA, before coming to Jacksonville in 1968. “Somehow or another I managed to go into local budgeting, and that was unusual. Budgeting was usually done by the accounting people in the finance department,” he says. “That’s not the kind of budgeting that produces good budgets. They would just record expenditures and go on based on that.”
Strasser was appointed budget officer by Mayor Hans Tanzler in Jacksonville’s new consolidated government. Strasser, who was also a successful land investor, served in various fiscal posts under several administrations until he retired in 1996. “I found out very quickly what politics was about,” he says. “We were able to cut taxes and still provide the services that needed to be done.
Throughout the years, Strasser has been a generous supporter at his alma mater, and its public events room was rededicated in 2015 as the Dr. Paul and Natalie Strasser Legacy Room. He’s also established a notable philanthropic presence at various organizations in Northeast Florida, with a special focus on education, animals, and the environment.
As Board president at Tree Hill Nature Center, he helped fund renovations to its amphitheater and sponsors its annual butterfly festival. An animal lover, he is Board vice president for First Coast No More Homeless Pets, and the Joseph A. Strasser Animal Health and Welfare Building on Norwood Avenue is a reflection of his contributions to the group.
Says Strasser, “I’ve lived a long, unusual life. My whole life since I retired has been a legacy. It’s one of those things that I am most proud of. I suppose that’s what you call a legacy, isn’t it? That’s all I have left.”