230518ind Anna Prager

Anna Prager, a former town planner and town council member in South Kingstown, as well as a former board chairman of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, died May 6 at the age of 87.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Richard Prager pondered for a moment a question about his mother, well known in South Kingstown as a town political leader, environmental advocate and planner for the development of the town.

“I have looked back many times and my mom was my inspiration,” said this son of Anna Friedman Prager who died May 6 at 87 years old. “Her friends said that she was a force,” he added with pride in his voice.

Both go hand-in-hand for this celebrated resident of South Kingstown who spent much of her life serving her community, her state and her family. She loved all and became that same kind of inspiration to many of them.

Her distinguished career in Rhode Island in both local and state government included a dozen years as South Kingstown town planner, a seat on the Town Council and as council president, policy positions in the Governor’s office and a stint as board chairman of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

She even taught chemistry, an interest in science that drew her and her husband, Jan, together for a marriage of 64 years. Now retired, he worked for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

They made South County Rhode Island their home in the early 1960s and Anna left a notable legacy in the community where she lived and served for nearly six decades. She taught while raising her family.

As her two children left for university studies, she, too, went off to school obtaining her master’s degree in community planning from the University of Rhode Island.

“My memories of her are as a woman on the go,” Richard Prager. “When home from college, she seemed to be going from one meeting to the next.”

But that life of making change and improvements through civic activities came later in life.

First came a remarkable start, if only for escaping death.

One of Anna Prager’s earliest memories was about a Siberian gulag, rattling the bars of her cell to tell her captors she was hungry. She was three years old.

“My mother said they were more likely to give food to a child,” Prager told The Independent in a 2007 interview.

The decision to become an American citizen was easy, she said. Coming to America was not.

She fled Poland with her mother in 1939 after the Nazis invaded. They crossed illegally into Russia, but were captured and sent to the Soviet forced labor camps in Siberia.

There, amazingly, they discovered Prager’s father, a soldier in the Polish Army, who had been taken prisoner and sent to the same camp.

“There were two children in the gulag, me and a little boy,” Prager said. “A grandmother who was too old to work in the mines took care of us. We played games, and she read to us.”

They eventually were released. The grandmother and Prager and her parents had survived. The little boy had not. They went to Uzbekistan’s largest city, Samarkand, where she started school.

In the years after came much travel, resettling in different countries until they finally were able to obtain permission to enter the United States.

By the time they arrived in New York City — with one suitcase — Prager was 16.

“Every two or three years, I’d lived in a different country,” Prager said. Each time, she learned a new language and a new way of life. “I was always wearing the clothes of the last country.”

She learned English, studied for the test that granted her citizenship and graduated from Queens College, part of the New York City colleges, which was free to any resident who could pass the entrance exam. She majored in chemistry.

Working as a lab assistant in one of her professor’s laboratories, she met Jan Prager, the son of a sculptor who was working on his doctoral dissertation.

They moved to South Kingstown in 1966, when Jan took a job with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Narragansett.

“We came up on a dreary February day,” Prager said. “I thought, ‘The earth is flat and we are on the edge.’ “

But it was wonderful to feel at home, not threatened, not having to run for her life, and they grew to love South Kingstown.

“We have been offered more money, fancier titles, but never a better quality of life,” Jan Prager said at the time of the 2007 interview.

Prager began to give back to the country that had been so good to her.

The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly INS)  honored her in 2007 with its “Outstanding Citizen by Choice” award. She was recognized for her decision to become an American citizen, and to make her adopted country a better place to live.

One interesting note about her career, say people who knew her, was her ability to see issues that would have long-term effects on the community.

She spotted the affordable housing struggle, which the town still faces, 18 years ago.

The Washington County Regional Planning Council created in 2005 the former Washington County Community Development Corp. It was to focus on creating low- and moderate-income housing in South County.

Prager was named the head of the Board of Directors for the new group.

“This is a crucial issue all over the state, but certainly here in South County, where housing prices have gone out of sight,” Prager said.

“We are not talking about shelter for the homeless; we are talking about teachers, planners, police officers and other people who need to live in our community, but can’t afford to,” she said.

That statement is still heard from advocates and business owners who are struggling to get employees as property values continue to skyrocket out of reach for low or moderate-income buyers.

Average prices today start at about $450,000 for a two- or three-bedroom small house with one or two bathrooms. These and higher prices are drawing high-income buyers and pushing out those below them on the income ladder.

Son Richard Prager, who later entered a finance career on Wall Street, looked back this week on all these experiences of his mother and the woman she became.

“I can’t say that any of these influenced her. She never said. What I can say, though, is that she had a drive to make a difference. She was a forward thinker rather than a player of defense,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, a freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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