Princeton Personality By Jean Stratton

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THE PEOPLE'S PRIEST: "When I was ordained in 1980, I never expected to work in a parish. My plan had been to go back to an Episcopal school as chaplain or headmaster. But then I realized I would – and should – be in a parish." The Rev. Frank C. Strasburger is Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Church on Mercer Street.
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Compassionate Service to Church and Community Are Focus of The Rev. Frank Strasburger

Frank C. Strasburger is an engaged citizen. Engaged in his church, his community, and in the wider world around him.

He sees a need, and he addresses it. He sees ways to make things happen, and he is a facilitator in encouraging others to commit to the task at hand, whether it's raising money for a new high school auditorium, supporting an organization to further medical education for South African blacks, or serving on the board of the Princeton Alcohol and Drug Alliance.

Underlying everything he does is his faith, which is the foundation, purpose, and fulfillment of his life, and which led to his ordination as an Episcopal priest.

"My faith is a bit off-beat actually," he explains. "I don't tend to subscribe to old platitudes. It may make it easier to be in touch with people who have difficulties with faith.

"I have always seen myself as having a particular ministry for people whose faith is by no means automatic," he continues.

"What I enjoy about being a priest is pastoring, preaching, the opportunity to teach, and the liturgy."

Music Major

This was certainly not the career he had in mind early on, he adds. As a boy, he expected to become an architect, and then later, as a music major at Princeton University, he planned to compose film scores.

Born in Baltimore in 1945, he was the son of Charles and Janet Strasburger. He and his older brother Arthur grew up in a Baltimore suburb near Pikesville.

"I loved to build things – "I would have been a Lego person from the word 'Go'," says Mr. Strasburger. "In the summer of my junior and senior years of high school, I worked for architects."

Frank also enjoyed a good argument and was president of his high school debating team. "This was the oldest public high school debating team in the country," he says, "and the high school, Baltimore City College, was the third oldest public high school in the U.S."

Frank liked school and was a good student, but what stands out most vividly in his boyhood is television. "Some of my earliest memories were of television. We got a TV in 1951, and the earliest thing I can remember was the General MacArthur ticker tape parade. Then, the second was the Army-McCarthy hearings. Confusing the names, I couldn't figure out what had happened to him – how he had fallen so far so fast!"

An incident from his high school years is seared in his memory, he adds. "It was a Monday afternoon in October, and it was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We all knew that President Kennedy was going to speak that night, and we didn't know what would happen. We really didn't know if we'd ever see each other again. We were glued to the radio. It's a moment hard to convey."

Basic Problems

Frank arrived in Princeton the following year, planning to pursue an architecture major. The best laid plans, however.....

"There were two basic problems," he explains. "First, I was born with a benign tremor, and I couldn't draw a straight line. Second, the first day in Physics 105 (a requirement for an architecture major), I transferred to Physics 103, and then to geology. So that ended my career as an architect."

An accomplished pianist, he turned his efforts to the Princeton Triangle Club, becoming its pianist for three years, and then musical director. With the idea of seeking a career writing film scores, he switched to a music major.

By the end of his junior year, however, he recalls, "I realized I was terribly misplaced in that major, and that I did not want to write film scores after all."

Nevertheless, he looks back at the preparation of his senior thesis – "Music: Man's Search for Relevance" – as truly memorable.

"Professor Edward Cone was my thesis advisor, and the experience of going through my thesis with him stands out as one of the great intellectual experiences of my life. It is a rare thing to be taken seriously as an undergraduate by a person of Ed Cone's stature."

Peace Baby

Frank was also chairman of the Orange Key Guide Service, introducing prospective students to Princeton, and he did some debating, but he recalls that he was not involved in the political issues that began to emerge on college campuses in the 1960s.

"I was born on V-J Day, August 14, 1945," he explains, recalling the date which ended World War II. "I've always considered myself a 'Peace Baby.' My generation is on the cusp – the end of the old days and the beginning of the new. Things began to happen on campuses in the early '60s, but most of the action began heating up in the late '60s. As a college student, I was pretty unengaged."

With two hoped-for careers discarded and no special calling with which he could identify, he found himself at loose ends. He sought the advice of Princeton's head of Career services, John McNaughton and Dean of Admissions, Alden Dunham.

Both men were influential in setting him on a completely new path, he remarks.

"Mr. McNaughton asked me, after listening intently, 'Have you ever failed at anything?' I paused, and then said, 'I guess not,' and I left, thinking I had given him the wrong answer.

"Then I went to see the Dean of Admissions and asked if I could work in Admissions after I graduated. I had gotten to know him when I was an Orange Key guide. He said he would not hire anyone in Admissions who wasn't interested in secondary school teaching.

"Walking back on campus, at first, I was baffled about that, but then it suddenly dawned on me that I would be a teacher. I wasn't really interested in Admissions, but in young people. What I realized at that moment was that I was going to be a teacher."

He found a position teaching English at the Taft School, a co-ed boarding school in Connecticut, and during this time, the comments of both John McNaughton and Alden Dunham became clearer to him.

Spiritual Experience

"This was about as difficult a time to teach as you can imagine," explains Mr. Strasburger. "Drugs were everywhere. The high school students were experimenting with them, questioning all authority – everything.

"One of the things about teaching, if you really put yourself in it, is that you can't get away with a lot of pretense. For the first time in my life, I was risking myself. Until I taught, everything I did I knew I could do. When I taught, it was a risk. Not intellectually, but when you're a teacher and housemaster, you are forced into yourself. I was a different person after that. Teaching became a spiritual experience for me."

While a career in the ministry was probably the furthest thing from his mind, he had an experience at Taft that caused him to look even deeper into himself and come face to face with who he was.

"I was the youngest teacher at Taft, and the kids were always in my room," he says. "I thought I was doing great. But then I suddenly found myself confronted with my shortcomings and humanness. This was a seminal experience.

"Two weeks into the winter term, I found a letter in my mail box from an anonymous student, which said: 'You think you're doing a great job, but you're not.' It listed everything I was doing wrong. I was devastated. Most of the time, we find ways of avoiding pain, taking easy courses, for example. Most of us go through life worried about the fact that we know we're fooling everyone and when will we get caught.

"My two most important reactions about this letter were (1) incredibly, I felt so deeply about it, and (2) I'm still alive. Most of us think we'll get better and better until we're perfect. We keep this balloon of perfection inflated, and now someone had popped it, and I felt relief! When I look back, I feel that this was my first experience with the Resurrection."

Exceptional Teacher

In explaining this, Mr. Strasburger takes a step back to his days at Princeton, recalling that he grew up in a Reformed Jewish family and was not especially observant. Other than that, his only experience with spiritual matters was Religion 101, an introductory course he took his freshman year.

"The late Malcolm Diamond taught the only religion course I took at Princeton. His capacity to climb into his subject was outstanding. He was a Jew, but when he was teaching Roman Catholicism, for example, he was immersed in it. An exceptional teacher."

Also, during his senior year, Frank was invited by the family of a close college friend, Kirk Unruh, to attend Easter services with them at St. Paul's Church in Baltimore.

"The priest's sermon was about identifying with Jesus on the way to the cross," remembers Mr. Strasburger. "I'd taken Religion 101, and I knew the story, but I thought, 'What is this fairy tale about the Resurrection?' During the service, I looked around and saw that my friends and civic leaders I recognized from Baltimore believed it, and I thought I'd like to talk to the priest."

He had no opportunity then, but later, his experience at the Taft School caused him to think more seriously about Jesus and the cross, he explains.

"Before, I thought I understood the story, but the truth is I was running away from the cross as fast as I could. I didn't want anything to do with it – with failure or death. Then, after two years at Taft, I entered a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins in Education Administration. I called my friends and asked if I could go back to church with them. I was now in a different place after two years of teaching.

"When I sat down with the priest this time, I felt that experiences such as I'd had at Taft gave me courage to face the cross. I realized that I believed in the Resurrection, and after several months, I talked to the priest about becoming a Christian."

Discussing a decision of this magnitude with his parents and brother was a major step, and he remarks on their support and willingness to accept his conversion. "I told them that in becoming a Christian, I had found what for me was a new level of interpretation. But I was not rejecting my roots or Judaism. I was born of a Jewish mother. I will always be a Jew."

Human Reason

After looking into many denominations, Mr. Strasburger was baptized into the Episcopal Church by the priest in Baltimore in 1970. As he says, "I did a lot of church shopping, and what drew me to the Episcopal Church was its sacramental nature, its high value on human reason, and its tolerance for ambiguity."

He went on to receive a Master's degree at Johns Hopkins in 1971, and soon after, he recalls, he received a call from St. Paul's School in Baltimore.

"The priest and headmaster at St. Paul's School asked me to become chaplain. So 14 months after being baptized and with only Religion 101, I found myself chaplain and chairman of the religion department at an Episcopal school."

After four years there, he headed north to become director of Admissions, associate chaplain, and instructor of religion at St. Mark's School in Massachusetts.

"Those were six unbelievable years," he reports. "It brought together what I loved to do and did naturally."

But in 1977, he began to think seriously about the ministry, and entered the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. where he earned a Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Theology three years later.

He was ordained in Baltimore in 1980, and the next year, went to St. Mark's Church in New Canaan, Ct. as assistant rector. It was a move he remembers with great pleasure. "The first Sunday at the church door, I met my wife, Carrie. She approached me, and said she'd like to work in the youth group."

They were married the following year, remaining in New Canaan until 1984, when the Rev. Strasburger was appointed Canon of the American Cathedral in Paris.

African Issues

"That was a very interesting ministry because I was involved in issues of state as well as of the church," he points out. "Also, a lot of Africans came to the church because they were Anglicans. I ran a refugee program, and that was really my first experience with African issues."

While in Paris, two children, Justin and Hilary, were born to the Strasburgers, joined later by Taylor, born in Princeton.

Arriving back in the U.S., Mr. Strasburger returned to his alma mater, becoming Episcopal Chaplain, a post he held for 11 years. "I loved working as chaplain at Princeton University," he says. "There was a large active Episcopal congregation, and I was involved in progressive activities on campus, such as the anti-war movement in 1991 and women's and minority issues.

"Princeton being a residential place was hospitable to ministry," he continues. "My own experience – my oddball journey – helped me to be open to the oddball experiences of others. I thought my job was to call people out of their parents' faith into their own faith."

He saw a lot of changes upon his return to Princeton, he adds. "For one thing, it became half again larger when it went co-ed. It was a much more worldly place, a far better place, a far more engaged place, and a lot more interesting. And this is from someone who loved every minute of my own four years there!"

In 1993, the Strasburgers' lives changed again when he took a three-month sabbatical, and the family traveled to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Figi.

Developing World

"In academia, people take sabbaticals," he explains, "and we wanted to go some place we'd never been, and in particular, in the developing world. We took the kids out of school, and I remember the superintendent saying, 'Don't let school get in the way of education!'"

On the advice of the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the family spent nearly two months in South Africa, including several weeks near Cape Town.

"Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world, bar none," emphasizes Mr. Strasburger.

While there, he did some church-related activities, but primarily, it was a trip focusing on education, observation, communication, and interaction.

Returning to Princeton, he found himself more and more involved in African issues. As he says, "When you are an American and have been in Africa, you are invited to be on lots of boards regarding African issues. I started to work with African organizations, including Medical Education for South African Blacks. It is the largest source of providing funds for health career services to improve the health of African blacks."

He left the chaplaincy at Princeton in 1997 to run the organization and serve as its president.

"Getting involved in African issues was tremendous for me," he adds. "I was so fascinated and interested. It was a unique experience. I met some phenomenal people, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu."

These experiences, reinforced his belief in the importance of and need for communication and interaction among people of different races, religions, and countries.

"On a visit to Massachusetts a few years ago, Carrie and I were staying with friends, who happened to be African-American. I was looking at a coffee table book featuring prominent African-Americans, and as I looked at it, I realized I knew a good many people in that book. But I also realized I would never have heard of them except through Medical Education for South African Blacks. It enabled me to cross a boundary that very few white Americans can, and it went a long way in ameliorating any incipient racism I had."

He realized he missed his full-time ministry, however, and in 1999, he accepted an interim post as associate rector at Trinity Church and never left!

Important Job

"I am very happy at Trinity," he says. "I became an Episcopalian especially because of its tolerance for ambiguity. This is a parish with a lot of tolerance for ambiguity. Our most important job is to welcome people here. It is a parish in which I find it possible to exercise all of my ministry. My work here at Trinity as pastor, preacher, teacher, and celebrant is everything I care about. Nothing is more fulfilling than when I sit in an office doing pre-marital counseling, or helping people to keep their marriage, or addressing a crisis of faith.

"Also," he adds, "the rector, Leslie Smith, has been very tolerant of my work in Africa, and equally tolerant when I was on the school board."

The Reverend Smith adds that he first knew Mr. Strasburger as Episcopal Chaplain at Princeton.

"Our church founded that chaplaincy more than 100 years ago, and thanks to Frank, we resumed very close ties to it. He's a terrific guy, and I worked very hard to bring him on board as part of our staff. He's creative, energetic, and works hard to establish roots in his community.

"One of the reasons I thought he'd be a good colleague is that he has a variety of commitments to community and international welfare, which helps Trinity to keep an open window in some very important and unique ways to give service."

Mr. Strasburger has continued to be committed to matters pertaining to Africa, and in 1999, he was instrumental in launching a new organization, Princeton-in-Africa.

"I couldn't leave Africa behind," he explains, "so with two other Princeton University alums, I founded this organization, whose mission is to build a constituency of future leaders committed to the emergence of Africa into the developed world. We do that by creating service fellowships for graduating Princetonians and young alumni. They go all over Africa in partnership with non-profit organizations.

"It has been one of the most exciting things I've done in my life. We have about 50 people who have served as Princeton-in-Africa fellows, and all have been fully funded.

Perfect Timing

"The University's African studies program has burgeoned," he adds. "Princeton-in-Africa hit a moment when Princeton was globalizing. Our timing was perfect. Princeton has given us office space, and we've gotten wonderful financial support from the alumni, and also corporations, And from the very first, we attracted the cream-of-the-crop of students."

One of these was Erin Ferenchick, Princeton Class of 2000, and now executive director of Princeton-in-Africa. She has been impressed with Mr. Strasburger's strong leadership qualities.

"Frank's commitment to Princeton-in-Africa is extraordinary. He has been there since the very beginning to nurture the growth and development of this program. I am constantly impressed by the depth of his involvement in service activities in the Princeton community and beyond. Frank is a true leader."

Mr. Strasburger manages to balance his work with Princeton-in-Africa, serving as President of the Board, with all the other demands on his time. He travels to Africa annually, most recently to Tanzania, a trip on which he was accompanied by his son Justin.

"My African experience has represented an enormous opportunity for growth for me," he notes. "It's an opportunity to become much better educated about Africa and engaged about issues there."

Closer to home, Mr. Strasburger, who is known for his informal and approachable manner, and who prefers to be called Frank rather than Reverend or Mr., is active in a variety of community and University projects, including vice president of his alumni class. He is on the boards of many organizations, and from 1999 to 2002, he was a member of the Princeton Regional School Board, serving as vice president for two years and as head of the facilities committee.

Full Education

He was very much engaged in planning for the renovation of the Princeton schools.

"I really enjoyed that experience," he reports. "I had had a career in education, and I wanted to serve. Also, my kids have loved the public schools here. Princeton High School, especially, has a lot of room for eccentricity, which is good for everyone, and they can all get a full education.

"When we were laying the groundwork for the improvements to the schools, I felt that the Princeton High auditorium was the crown jewel for the entire community. But the bids were high, and the auditorium was reduced to a regular high school facility.

"Then, I decided to try to raise money for it. We have been fortunate to receive two gifts of $500,000 each for this. It is important because if you look at Princeton High School, there is a lot that is distinctive, but nothing more distinctive than its arts program. In 1966, I was a Princeton University junior, and I heard the PHS choir sing Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. It was extraordinary, and I remember that concert to this day.

"In addition," he continues, "this town desperately needs another good performing facility. The new auditorium will seat 850, and should be finished by the fall of 2005."

Current School Board President Charlotte Bialek served with Mr. Strasburger, and she recalls his dedication.

Major Priority

"Frank and I worked very closely together, largely with respect to the facilities planning. We shared our thinking during that time. He has been instrumental in bringing wonderful donations to the school, and he is working on a number of other things on our behalf. He has a lot of advice to offer, and he seems to know absolutely everyone in town. He is a wonderful person."

A major priority for Mr. Strasburger is reaching out to young people. As he points out, "I think Princeton has an opportunity. We are still a small town, although we have grown, and there are some limits to our growth. As a small town that has considerable diversity, I think we need to be doing a lot more to be parents to one another's kids and be families to one another. What I mean by that is when I was growing up, I knew I couldn't get away with much before my parents found out about it.

"I think one of the ways we have let our kids down is that we haven't a structure of accountability. We have to let our kids become their own people, but unfortunately, parents don't get together enough to coalesce about what is good and not good for kids – to help each other raise our kids."

His concern for young people is shared by his wife, he adds. "One of the people I most admire is my wife. She is in the process of starting a school – the Bridge Academy in Lawrenceville for kids with learning disabilities. She is also on both the domestic violence prevention team and the sexual assault prevention team for WomanSpace. This means she can get calls at 2 a.m., and then have to go out. I am very proud of her. She can do all this and be such an incredible wife and mother.

"I have to say also that I am very proud of my kids. Jackie Kennedy Onassis said it really doesn't matter what you've done with your life if you haven't raised your children well. I can't take credit – or even my wife fully – for the people our children are becoming. They are their own people, and they are wonderful people."

"Also, we loved raising the kids in this community because of its diversity. If you are interested in that diversity, and seek it out, you can be rewarded."

He adds that he was never more grateful to be living in Princeton than three years ago when his daughter Hilary suffered a stroke. "At a time of trauma for our family, the outpouring of concern and support from the community was extraordinary. Hilary is now fully recovered, and will attend college next fall."

Although he loves Princeton and all it has to offer, Mr. Strasburger admits that his heart is in Maine, where the family has a summer home.

"In 1970, three days before I was baptized, I bought an 11-acre piece of land in Jackman, Maine on the Quebec border on a large lake. All wooded, it looks to the mountains and sunsets. Two years later, I designed and built a house. Now, we go there every summer, and I've celebrated every birthday there, but one, since I bought it. It's called Cair Paravel – the castle in C.S. Lewis' "The Narnia Chronicles'.

"When we were on sabbatical, my wife said, 'I could think of living in Cape Town, except it's too far from Maine.'

Reaching Out

"Our kids have all gone to Camp Kieve in Maine, and I'm on the advisory board," he continues. "It's not just a summer camp, but has developed a number of programs, including the Leadership Decision Institute, which reaches out to kids all over Maine."

"Reaching out" has characterized Frank Strasburger's personal and professional life. This is emphasized by his friend of more than 40 years, Kirk Unruh, currently Recording Secretary of Princeton University.

"I can tell you that service to others is Frank's hallmark. The kind of thoughtfulness, consideration and kindness to others which he displays is genuine, and for those who come in contact with him, transforming. When I first knew him at college, I was astounded how he could know every member of his class and care about them deeply.

"Frank is eloquent when he speaks, and when he preaches in church, it is from his heart, soul, and mind. He speaks both with insight and compassion, which is a winning combination."

"Ultimately, it is about the relationships – with former students, people in the parish, in town, colleagues, and friends," adds Mr. Strasburger. "For me, as a priest and teacher, it is a tremendous gift to be welcomed into the most personal moments in people's lives, which makes strangers become friends very quickly. People can be vulnerable in these moments. Normal defenses that are carried around every day disappear. The role of the priest, as representative of a caring community, is to be there in these moments when a person needs someone to trust."

His concern and compassion for those in his ministry and beyond are indeed qualities for which he is well-known. As he says, "We realize how small the earth is today, and ultimately, the reason I am interested in international issues is that at the end of the day, these are all people – they are our sisters and brothers."


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