A Community of Influence

By Betty Adams Roach '43

In 1969, a 30-plus-year-old Moravian alumnus and a belligerent 14-year-old from Puerto Rico moved to Hartford, Connecticut, with their respective families. The older newcomer moved into an office on the campus of Trinity College and set about his job assignment—improving relations between the college and the economic and socially downtrodden community surrounding the college. The youngster, living in poverty in a nearby mostly Hispanic neighborhood, began running with a youth gang with a bent toward violence.

The paths of these two personalities—Ivan Backer ’49 and Eddie Perez—inevitably crossed, not in violence but in creative economic and humanitarian urban planning. And today both remain acclaimed residents of Hartford—Ivan, now retired, but widely recognized as a skilled planner and hands-on leader of urban revitalization, and Perez, an enormously popular twice-elected Hispanic mayor of Hartford, who worked with Ivan on community projects and followed him as a forceful leader of Hartford’s ongoing massive restructuring programs.

Ivan, whose family fled Czechoslovakia at the start of World War II, had had the good fortune to land in supportive circumstances—the Moravian educational community. First in England, at the Moravian boys’ school at Fulneck, then in the U.S., at Moravian College, he found, as he says, “acceptance and love—a safe haven in time of great stress during the war.” It was this acceptance that nurtured his commitment to community.

After his graduation from Moravian, Ivan was drawn to the ministry and enrolled at Union Theological Seminary. But upon earning a degree in divinity, he turned from a religious vocation to business and for a decade worked as a sales executive for lighting fixture firms in the New York City area. In 1964, however, he reversed his career and was ordained an Episcopal priest. Assigned to two small mission churches in Bergen County, N.J., he became a civil-rights activist. His social activism, along with his voiced opposition to the Vietnam War, attracted wide attention but received less than full support from local government and some members of the religious hierarchy.

At that point, Trinity College gave Ivan the opportunity to embark on the career to which his embedded life values apparently had been steering him all along. In 1969, the college recruited him to direct its expanding community affairs program, and for over a quarter of a century, Ivan was a key leader of urban neighborhood revitalization in Hartford, a city which was then (and remains today) one of the poorest metropolitan centers in the country, afflicted by high crime, taxes, and unemployment.

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Ivan Backer, '49 received Moravian's Haupert Humanitarian Award on October 24, 2003.