Alfred Bader, a generous philanthropist, gifted Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo” to his alma mater. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Dr. Alfred Robert Bader, a chemist and entrepreneur who co-founded Aldrich Chemical Co. after escaping Nazi-occupied Austria, and later in life a prominent art collector, art dealer and philanthropist, died in Milwaukee on Dec. 23, 2018. He was 94.
“From my first days in Milwaukee,” wrote Bader in his 1995 autobiography “Adventures of a Chemist Collector,” “chemistry, the Bible and art have been the interconnected motifs in my life.”
In 1951, while working as a researcher for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Milwaukee, he co-founded Aldrich Chemical Company. It filled a niche by producing and distributing high-quality chemical compounds to research chemists. In 1975, the company merged with Sigma Chemical to form Sigma-Aldrich Corporation, which Bader helped grow into a Fortune 500 company. After leaving the board in 1992, he focused on art and philanthropy.
Bader Philanthropies has given more than $275 million since its founding as the Helen Bader Foundation in 1992. The organization supports social services, the arts and medical research, including treatment and care-giving innovations for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bader donated heavily to Jewish education, and in 2016 elementary and high schools operated by Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin were renamed after him, as Bader Hillel Academy and Bader Hillel High.
“He was a very devout Jew” who considered tzedakah (charity) to be “just what you do, to give your money back to society to help others,” said his son Daniel Bader, president and CEO of Bader Philanthropies.
Perhaps most prominently, Alfred Bader gave greatly to his alma mater, Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, including his massive collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters. Among three Rembrandt paintings gifted to the school was the 1658 masterpiece “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo,” with an estimated value of $60 million, according to the Toronto Star. He and his wife Isabel funded the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, and purchased the 15th-century Herstmonceux Castle in England to donate it to the university for use as the Bader International Study Centre, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
In his eulogy, his son David Bader, vice president of Bader Philanthropies, recalled that his father treated his alma mater “like another sibling to my brother and me.”
“He was so grateful to Queen’s because they accepted him” after other schools rejected him because of his religion, explained Daniel Bader. “He was an immigrant; he was a refugee. English was his second language. He was a Jew. Everything was set against him at that time in life, and they accepted him and treated him fairly.”
Alfred Bader was born on April 28, 1924, in Vienna, to a Jewish father and Hungarian Catholic mother who, Bader wrote in his autobiography, was spurned by her family for eloping with a Jew. When he was 2 weeks old his father died, and he was adopted by his father’s sister, a widow who raised him as a Jew; he later formally converted. His aunt would die in a Nazi concentration camp. He had an older sister, Marion, who remained with their birth mother and was raised as a Catholic.
In 1938, at age 14, he fled the Nazi occupation, arriving in England with almost nothing save his prized stamp collection. Upon turning 16, he was sent to an internment camp in Quebec and held there for nearly two years before being taken in by a Jewish family in Montreal.
“He had the distinction of being a child refugee not just once but twice,” noted Daniel Bader. “First from Austria on the Kindertransport, and second being ejected from England when the war broke out.”
At Queen’s University, he earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and history, and a master’s in chemistry. He received a doctorate in organic chemistry from Harvard University in 1950.
Two years later, he married Helen “Danny” Daniels, a South Dakota native who converted to Judaism. Together they had two sons, David and Daniel, before divorcing in 1981. She died in 1989.
In 1982, Alfred Bader married Isabel Overton, a Canadian Protestant who he first met in 1949 aboard a ship sailing from Quebec City to Liverpool, proposing in England nine days later. However, a Jewish family was critical to him, and Isabel didn’t wish to convert. “After seventy-nine letters,” Bader recalled in his autobiography, “she wrote to say that she did not think our marriage would work, and she would not write again.” In 1975, unable to shake the impression she made, he reached out, and they renewed correspondence.
“He was a ball of fire,” Isabel reflected in a phone call. “He was interested in a great many things. He was invariably polite and kind. He was a wonderful person.”
Bader is survived by his wife Isabel, sons David and Daniel and their wives, and seven grandchildren.