Alex Fraser dies at 90; developer of Washington’s Open University

June 21, 2014

Into the academic smorgasbord of Washington — a region top-heavy with arcane scholarship and hand-wringing punditry, world-class colleges, think tanks and ponderous study commissions — into this intellectual fervor stepped Alex Fraser with a new idea.

The year was 1975, and Mr. Fraser, a tall, lean man who drove about town in a golden Mercedes-Benz convertible with the license plate ENJOY, envisioned an alternative institution of higher learning.

His would be a school that would teach skills such as making pizza dough, playing chess, sailing, the benefits of putting money into real estate over diamonds, and meeting and getting along with others. In other words, the fundamental techniques of survival.

“In every field,” he quipped, “there are rules of thumb, aphorisms, little pieces of knowledge that can form the basis of not getting killed.”

Mr. Fraser’s idea morphed into the “Open University” of Washington, a seat-of-the-pants learning institution with no campus, no degrees, no sports teams, and an eclectic curriculum and faculty that offered short-term, non-credit courses on just about anything that might interest anyone, from better sex to avoiding parking tickets.


Alex Fraser, founder of D.C.’s Open University, shown in 1975. He pursued many artistic interests and had a personalized license plate that read “Enjoy.” (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

He sold Open University for his start-up expenses almost immediately after liftoff, but the idea proved to be a winner. The next owner helped it grow to 40,000 students with such courses as “Parrot Psychology,” “How to Marry Money” and “How to Be Single and Jewish in Washington . . . And Not Have Your Mother Worry,” and then sold Open University in 1985. It shuttered about a year later.

Mr. Fraser made his living as an investor. At Open University he led courses — most of which met in his home — on how to make money.

Over the years, he chased a variety of other dreams, most of which were motivated by a desire to meet people, especially attractive women, according to his daughter, Alexa Fraser.

That’s why he started Open University, she said. That’s why he directed community theatrical productions for the Chevy Chase Players, Silver Spring Stage and Cedar Lane Stage, among other groups. He founded and became artistic director of the Embassy Players, which performed at the Norwegian, Croatian and Ukrainian embassies. He also founded a Georgetown art gallery in an effort to meet women.

In addition, Mr. Fraser developed real estate in Washington and built and sold homes in Montgomery and Howard counties. He invested in stripper oil wells — those near the end of their productive life — in Pennsylvania. He took up sailing in a leaky 50-foot sailboat, which he spent two years repairing and then gave to the Boy Scouts.

On June 7, he took his own life. Ninety years old and debilitated with Parkinson’s disease, Mr. Fraser told his family he wanted to control the time and manner of his exit. He was a member of the Hemlock Society, the right-to-die organization, and he was a committed believer in death with dignity.

The office of the Maryland Medical Examiner said he died of a gunshot wound to the head at his home in Garrett Park, Md. The death was officially ruled a suicide.

“He was not going out a minute earlier than he had to,” his daughter said, “but he did not want to end helpless and incapacitated in an institution. I am very proud of him for doing what he did.”

William Alexander Fraser was born May 5, 1924, in Valparaiso, Ind. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and was taken prisoner near the end of the war. He celebrated his 21st birthday in a German stalag.

“Just by chance, the German guards included a small piece of horse meat in my soup that day,” he once wrote in a letter to The Washington Post magazine. “Best present I ever got.”

He graduated from Indiana University in 1948 and received a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California in 1955.

For two years, he taught mathematics and finance at USC. He was also a night auditor at a hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., and a “135-pound bouncer in Texas,” he said, before coming to the Washington area around 1959.

His marriage to Haynes Reynolds ended in divorce. Their daughter, Alexa Fraser of Rockville, and a grandson are his only immediate survivors.

“He knew the marriage was a mistake after two years, but he was married for about 10 years,” his daughter said. “He wasn’t the marrying kind.”

Mr. Fraser’s idea to create Open University in Washington came from a similar operation in San Francisco. Classes would be short term and were often held in the teacher’s home. Creative in the start-up process of his varied endeavors, Mr. Fraser had minimal interest in the daily management of an operation over the long haul, said Sandy Bremer, a friend who purchased Open University from Mr. Fraser.

She paid him back the $1,300 he invested in catalogues and brochures and ran it as a business for 10 years. She sold it to the Learning Annex, a New York-based adult-learning business that tried to reap hefty profits, which led to a teacher revolt.

Not all of Mr. Fraser’s ideas worked. He held a number of patents, including one to place advertisements atop the divider bars that supermarket clerks place between customers’ purchases at checkout counters. But profits from his inventions were slim to nonexistent.

With a colleague, he formed Chicken Little Associates when NASA’s Skylab was orbiting the earth in 1979, the time and place of its inevitable crash unknown. For $100 a month, Chicken Little Associates offered to predict when Skylab would be directly overhead. There were few takers.

At the turn of the millennium, Mr. Fraser was anxious about the Y2K bug and the attendant predictions of widespread computer malfunctions and cyberspace chaos. He moved to Arkansas and stockpiled food and supplies, preparing for “the end of the world as we know it.”

When nothing noteworthy happened as Dec. 31, 1999, turned to Jan. 1, 2000, he made fun of his own mistake.

“I was ready for life in the 13th century, but not the 21st,” he told The Post.

A few weeks before his death, Mr. Fraser submitted an essay for publication in the Mine column of The Post’s magazine. Contributors are asked to write a 250-word essay on something small they treasure. He died before his essay could be published.

Here’s what he wrote:

It’s only six inches long . . . ugly as can be . . . almost certainly made by slave labor . . . but I love that spoon.

In the waning days of WWII, my platoon was captured by the German army. Their artillery had set fire to the village we had taken earlier so it was surrender or die.

The real worry was: Do we surrender AND die? The Malmedy massacre had taken place only a few months earlier. The pile of bloody GI uniforms, next to the shed in which we spent first night, did nothing to reassure us.

But late the next day, we arrived at the old factory which was to be our prison . . . and were given our spoons.

We figured, “Hey, they wouldn’t go to this trouble if they were going to kill us.”

And they didn’t.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local