Mathematician’s legacy lives on through scholarship fund
2017-11-09 Dayton Daily News eEdition
By Beth Anspach
After feeling Nazi occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, Aleksandar Svager and his family were fortunate to be alive. Born in 1931 to a Jewish doctor and his wife, Svager, who today lives in Wilberforce near Central State University (CSU), said his family fled with just the clothes on their backs and narrowly escaped being sent to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.
But despite being torn away from the only place he had ever known, young Svager ended up taking the lessons he learned during that horrible time and turning them into something good.
“My family returned to Sarajevo after the war,” Svager said. “I eventually got a job at the university there but nearly got arrested many times.”
Svager began tutoring students who were struggling in math and science and eventually became a professor at the university. But Yugoslavia under communist control was a difficult place in which to live. Targeted by the secret police, Svager eventually came to the United States in 1960 after applying for aFulbright Scholarship.
“I was accepted to Texas Christian University,” Svager said. “They asked me if I would object to going to a church school but I didn’t mind. I had lost so much time in school during the war.”
Svager, who has always been gifted in math and science, became devoted to helping students succeed and this generosity continued after he arrived in Wilberforce a few years later.
“I came to the United States to get additional education, but I was supposed to go back home eventually,” Svager said. “After four years, the Yugoslav government revoked my passport.”
Since Svager was not married at the time, his contact at the immigration department suggested he “get a job and get a permanent residence.” He met his wife, Thyrsa Frazier, at CSU, where she had been a professor of mathematics since 1954. Svager’s job there was head of the physics department and said he and his wife were an instant “match.” With a shared love of education and mathematics, the couple decided they wanted to help students graduate from college.
“As it happened, we didn’t have our own children,” Svager said. “When we got married we were both a lot closer to 40 than to 30!”
The couple decided to unofficially “adopt” students in need and especially wanted to focus on helping African-American women pursue degrees in math, since Frazier has already paved the way by becoming one of the first African-American women in the U.S. to earn a PhD in mathematics.
“When we got married we decided to live on one salary and invest the other,” Svager said. “Whenever a kid needed money, we gave it and we never said it was a gift or a loan.”
Frazier passed away in 1999 after 31 years of marriage and today Svager still lives in the house they shared. He retired from CSU in 1996 and said he and his wife had planned to leave a legacy after their deaths by funding scholarships.
“I wanted a way to remember my wife,” Svager said. “If I was a painter, I would have painted a picture of her, but since she and I had always helped students, I decided I needed to create a scholarship fund.”
Today the Thyrsa Frazier Svager fund, which was created through the African-American Community Fund (AACF) of the Dayton Foundation has awarded more than $89,000 in scholarships to date to 31 African-American women.
“When you’re a minority woman pursuing a higher education degree in math or engineering there are times where you are going to be socially isolated,” said Adrienne Fairbanks, a scholarship recipient who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta in 2014 and today is working as an engineer. “Receiving this scholarship let me know that there was someone there supporting me in getting my degree and it showed me that I too could help others.”
Fairbanks also said she loves the story of the Svagers and how they were always generous with their time, resources and talents.
“He was a physicist and she was a mathematician and she got her degree when it was a difficult time for minorities and women,” Fairbanks said. “This is inspiring and empowering to me.”
The AACF is celebrating 25 years of philanthropic impact with a gala on Nov. 11 at the Dayton Art Institute and Svager will be in attendance. For more information, log on to www.daytonfoundation.org.
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