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Abram Sachar: Brandeis’ first president

In 1948, nobody would have dreamed of the heights Brandeis would hit in its first 20 years. The newborn university had been built from the remnants of the financially embattled Middlesex University. In the beginning, there were just 107 students and 13 faculty. At a time when the future was very much uncertain, one of Brandeis’ greatest assets facilitated the university’s ascension to greatness. His name was Dr. Abram Leon Sachar.

A son to Jewish immigrants, Sachar was born in 1899, in New York, NY. His academic record was impeccable, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with two degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and earning a doctorate from Cambridge University. After years of teaching, writing, advocacy and involvement in the Jewish community, Sachar accepted a position at the helm of the fledgling Brandeis University.

Sachar is arguably one of the most important figures in the university’s history, building the school up and leaving behind a pervasive legacy that continues to this day. Only 13 years after opening its doors, Brandeis was chartered a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a feat that other top-tiered universities have achieved with much less ease.

Middlesex University centered around what Brandeis would dedicate Usen Castle, making for a campus dwarfed by the size of Brandeis today. Under Sachar’s watch, the university would expand to open doors to today’s first-year quads and campus center Ford Hall in the 1950s. East Quad was completed in the 1960s. The Usdan Student Center opened in 1970, one year following Sachar’s resignation.

Of course, such ambitious expansion projects required significant funding. According to the Brandeis Archives, Sachar was able to raise more than $250 million during all of his time at the university as president and later as chancellor and chancellor emeritus.

It was not just Sachar’s fundraising skills and desire to turn Brandeis into a top-tier university that solidified his legacy. It was his character, his determined vision and his devotion to fostering development of a nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning that made Brandeis what it is today.

After decades of involvement with Brandeis, Sachar’s legacy had been sewed into the very heart of the university. The school had been turned into the Jewish-sponsored, world-class institution he had envisioned: a renowned school where everyone is accepted. When he died in 1993 at the age of 94, the community lost more than a spectacular individual; it lost the man who had made Brandeis what it is today.

Ten days after Sachar died, Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts eulogized him as “one of the century’s greatest university presidents” on the House of Representatives floor. He recounted to Congress Sachar’s history and achievements but most of all highlighted “the success” of Brandeis as a result of his “tireless efforts” to found a university accepting of all people and create a responsible student body instilled with “a sense of social conscience.” Sachar took office as the first president of Brandeis University in 1948, and his legacy still remains ever pervasive.

Today’s Brandeis would be completely foreign to those 107 students and 13 faculty who first walked through the university’s doors in 1948, thanks to Sachar. Today, over 3,700 undergraduate students walk the campus grounds, not to mention the countless graduate students and skilled faculty. We started without much more than a struggling university and a castle. Thanks to the Sachar’s efforts, Brandeis rose through the ranks to the level of top-tier universities with much speed while at the same time staying true to the philosophy of tolerance it was built on.

Sachar and his wife, Thelma, who died in 1997, were laid to rest together in a special plot nearby the Sachar International Center of the IBS on campus. They were both outlived by their three sons, Howard, Edward and David.

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