Thirty years ago, Alfred Bader was reading The Times while he and his wife, Isabel, were travelling by train from London to the home they shared in Sussex on the south coast of England. He spotted a real estate ad for a moated brick castle, turned to his wife and asked: “Would you like a castle?” It was the kind of idle fantasy a couple might indulge to pass an hour or so on an otherwise ordinary journey, but Mr. Bader was serious. A chemical researcher and entrepreneur, he had made a megafortune as the co-founder of the Aldrich Chemical Company. Buying a £5-million folly was well within his means.
His Canadian-born wife, who had lived in England for half her life, as a teacher and co-founder of a drama school and a small costume museum, glanced at the listing. She recognized Herstmonceux, the crenellated 15th-century pile that had most recently served as an outpost to the Greenwich Observatory, and gently declined the gift, saying, in her sensible way, “There are too many rooms to clean.” Well, if not Isabel, then perhaps Queen’s University in Kingston, Mr. Bader’s alma mater and his second great love?
The castle is one of many gifts the Baders have given to Queen’s, a truly remarkable pattern of largesse that includes the expansion of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre as the home for the Bader collection of more than 500 works of art, including four Rembrandt paintings, a performing arts centre named after Isabel Bader and the endowment of academic chairs along with numerous bursaries and awards for education and research – a legacy that will endure long after his death at 93 in 2018 and hers at 95 on Aug. 28. Her stepson Daniel Bader, president and CEO of Bader Philanthropies said her mind was sharp and clear to the end, but her body began failing after a bout of pneumonia.
There is more to this story than a rags to riches account of a couple who worked hard to achieve success and then spent the rest of their lives judiciously giving their money away. The ballad of Alfred and Isabel is a love song replete with unrequited passion and warring ambitions.
Isabel Overton, the second of three children of Herbert Overton, a British immigrant and his Canadian-born wife, Stella Stirr, was born on Nov. 1, 1926, in Kirkland Lake. The hardscrabble town in Northern Ontario is best known as the motherlode of Sir Harry Oakes’s gold-mining wealth. Her father, a cabinetmaker, inhabited a very different social position.
Times were tough for the Overtons during the Depression, dependent as they were on Herbert’s income from his job in the carpentry shop of a local gold mine. Isabel would later recount finding a dime under the cushion of a davenport, which enabled her mother to buy vegetables for the next meal. Nevertheless, music and higher education were deeply prized and so were visions of England’s “green and pleasant land.”
In 1937, Herbert returned to England to visit his family, taking his elder daughter, Marion, after promising Isabel a similar trip in five years’ time. The war and Isabel’s academic ambitions intervened when she became the first member of her family to attend university, financed by summer jobs and a scholarship to Victoria University at the University of Toronto.
In July 1949, shortly after graduation, Ms. Overton and Ruth Hunt, a university chum, embarked from Quebec City bound for Liverpool, hoping to find teaching jobs in England. Cupid interceded, for Mr. Bader was another of the 900 or so passengers aboard the SS Franconia.
A Jewish refugee, who had escaped from Austria, at age 14, on the first kindertransport to England after Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938), Mr. Bader had been rounded up as an enemy alien two years later and deported to Canada. While in a Quebec internment camp, he wrote junior and senior matriculation exams. After scoring excellent grades, he was refused by McGill University and U of T before Queen’s accepted him to do a degree in engineering chemistry. He was making his first trip back to Europe since his deportation.
Mr. Bader and Ms. Overton met five days into the voyage and quickly realized, as he wrote in his memoir, Adventures of a Chemist Collector, “that we cared for each other.” After docking in Liverpool, they arranged a rendezvous in London. A week later he had proposed, and she had refused him.
A child refugee twice over, he wanted to have a Jewish family, which meant Ms. Overton would have to convert, a violation of her deeply held Christian beliefs. Religion wasn’t the only impediment. Ms. Overton had ambitions that stretched beyond marriage and babies. Her career trajectory was driven by teaching, theatre, travel and music. She was also determined to live in England, as is clear from reading A Canadian in Love, a collection of her letters to Mr. Bader that he carefully numbered and preserved for the rest of his life.
“I’ve dreamt for twelve years of the time when I could come to England, to roam over the hills of this little Isle, to look at its quaint villages, its beautiful cathedrals, and its old houses. It has been my one ambition,” Ms. Overton wrote him on Sept. 12, 1949. She acknowledged that meeting Mr. Bader was a serious complication: “How long have I dreamt of meeting someone like you. I guess I can’t say really. I have never been happier than when I am with you.”
He intended to return to North America to complete his PhD in chemistry at Harvard. That plan was not in question, so why should she abandon her goal? “I’ll wish so very much that I could be with you to find peace for the agony of teaching for the first time,” she wrote. “May I not fail in this effort. I could never look anyone in the face again. I guess my pride’s as great as yours.”
They continued to write, but one year in England turned into another. He even visited her family in Kirkland Lake after she went home for her sister Marion’s wedding in August 1951, but she managed to avoid him. She was in a such a conflicted state that her mother wrote secretly to Mr. Bader to explain that her daughter’s “head said one thing, her heart another.”
The following year Mr. Bader, who by then was living in Milwaukee, and building Aldrich, met and married Helen Daniels, known as Danny. She was a Protestant who converted to Judaism, and eventually bore him two sons, David and Daniel, whom they raised in a devoutly Jewish home. His wife, besides being a homemaker, worked for Mr. Bader’s company.
And then, in 1975, Mr. Bader had a series of frightening dreams in which Ms. Overton’s aged father demanded to know why he was not with his daughter Isabel. Why not indeed, for as Mr. Bader’s subsequent sleuthing revealed, Ms. Overton had never married. He wrote, breaking a nearly 25-year silence; they met briefly in England, the very week her father died at 93. Mr. Bader wanted more, she resisted because he was a married man with children.
Mr. Bader’s long-suffering wife, who had always known about her husband’s love for Ms. Overton, asked for a divorce in 1981, much to the surprise of their circle of friends and their sons. True to her empathetic nature and his generosity, the negotiations were amicable.
A year later, Mr. Bader and Ms. Overton married and she converted to Judaism. By now she was 55, so presumably the issue of raising children in her Christian faith was no longer as pressing as it had been in June 1950 when she wrote a loving and regretful letter to Mr. Bader, explaining that to “have a child of mine in my arms and not to have pledged myself to guide him into a way of life that I believe to be the best, would be impossible.”
Instead of raising a family, the couple embarked on mutual philanthropy projects, including among many others, building the 600-seat Isabel Bader Theatre at her alma mater. In recognition, she was given an honorary degree in 1995, and the University of Toronto inducted both Baders into the Chancellors’ Circle of Benefactors in 2016.
Her stepson Daniel Bader said in an interview that Isabel was not just a teacher of children, but “a teacher of people,” especially in the way she could connect with everybody. “I’ve met hundreds of people who said they had a special relationship with her,” a quality he suggested she shared with the late Queen Elizabeth II, pointing out that both women were born in 1926 and died within weeks of each other.
As well, Ms. Bader “energized” the family’s philanthropic activities, he said, by spearheading the merger of his late parents’ separate foundations into a new entity called Bader Philanthropies, and, among other innovations, adding support for Indigenous causes in Canada and the United States.
Predeceased by her husband and her sister, Marion, Isabel Bader leaves her stepsons, younger brother, Clifford Overton, and extended family.