When I was a little girl, I thought my parents’ closest friends, the Baders, were poor. I felt bad that Alfred could not afford to replace his shabby suits and rickety old car, let his wife, Helen, install wall-to-wall carpeting, or even buy his sons David and Daniel a television set.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to discover that the Baders were, in fact, enormously wealthy. The worn rugs on the floors of their three-story Arts and Crafts house on Shepherd Avenue were antique Orientals. The Bader boys were being encouraged to study Torah instead of watching television. If it meant spending money on anything other than growing his company, Aldrich Chemical or his collection of 17th century Dutch art, Alfred didn’t need it.
My sense of tardiness revived as I read “An Independent Spirit: The Quiet, Generous Life of Helen Daniels Bader,” by Priscilla Pardini. The biography, published by Bader Philanthropies, is well-written and unflinchingly honest – a welcome rarity in a privately commissioned book. But this ultimately riveting tale takes a long time to get to the events that prompted Helen’s evolution from introverted wife into the trailblazing philanthropist whose influence continues to transform Milwaukee decades after her untimely death.
Helen Bader’s story is important on two fronts. As history, it explains the genesis of a fund that has provided more than $300 million since its inception in 1992, much of it going to help Milwaukee’s most vulnerable. It is also an epic saga of struggle, romance, betrayal, bravery, grace and redemption. But there’s no sign of any of this until more than a third of the way through, after three chapters laden with South Dakotan history predating her birth.
The bare facts of Helen Bader’s life read like a movie synopsis:
A small-town girl grows up Christian Scientist in South Dakota during the Depression. She moves to Milwaukee after World War II to attend Downer College, falls in love with a Holocaust refugee from Austria and marries him after converting to Orthodox Judaism. The newlyweds start a small business in a garage and build it into one of America’s most important chemical companies, while the wife raises their two sons and puts kosher meals on the table.
Not even their closest friends know that the husband married the wife on the rebound after his true love rejected his earlier proposal because she didn’t want to convert to Judaism. As his silver wedding anniversary approaches, he tracks down the woman who’d rejected him to England. Upon discovering that she’s never married, he embarks upon a double life.
His wife suffers in secret for years. She files for divorce over her husband’s objections. They split their fortune in half. He moves his beloved into the family home and remarries. She transcends the public humiliation and her innate timidity to blossom: becoming a leading figure in Alzheimer’s care and research, competing in ballroom dancing contests, and learning flamenco guitar. Then, just before her 60th birthday she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. During two years of agonizing cancer treatment, she encourages her sons to reconcile with their father and befriend his second wife.
The book does an admirable job of recounting Helen’s marital problems honestly without dipping into salaciousness. I wish it had drawn a more direct line from her final act of nobility to the benefits it continues to create for future generations of Wisconsinites.
When Helen Bader died in 1989, she left an estate of approximately $100 million to be dispersed through the foundation created in her name. Key projects included creating the Center for Dementia and Aging at the Milwaukee Jewish Home, endowing University of Wisconsin’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare and Institute for Nonprofit Management, restoring the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s historic recital hall, and making generous donations to the Legal Aid Society.
When founded, the Helen Bader Foundation was designed to spend itself out of existence by 2019. But the family unity she promoted led Alfred Bader and his second wife, Isabel, to merge their foundation with Helen’s to create Bader Philanthropies, spending $20 million per year on charitable projects with no end in sight.
Milwaukee native Molly Gordy is a freelance writer in New York City.
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What: On online event offered by Jewish Museum Milwaukee relating to “An Independent Spirit: The Quiet, Generous Life of Helen Daniels Bader,” by Priscilla Pardini. David Bader, Deirdre Britt (Helen Daniels Bader’s son and niece) and Pardini are to speak.
When: Noon, March 10, 2021
Where: Online. Visit JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org for more information.