Alfred Bader, who died in Milwaukee on Dec. 23 at the age of 94, came to Canada as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany at the age of 16, deported from Britain as an “enemy alien.” After almost two years in a detention camp in Quebec, he enrolled at Queen’s University and excelled in his engineering chemistry studies. He went on to co-found a chemical business that was hugely successful, and gave $200-million in gifts to Queen’s, including a castle in England.
He was born in Vienna on April 28, 1924, to a Jewish father, also named Alfred Bader, and the former Elisabeth Serényi, the daughter of a Hungarian aristocrat. The Baders were a prosperous Jewish family – his grandfather was one of the engineers on the construction of the Suez Canal – and the Serényi family was devoutly Catholic.
“When she fell in love with my father, a Jew, her parents objected violently and tried to have her committed to an asylum, so she and my father eloped and were married in London,” wrote Dr. Bader in the first volume of his autobiography, Adventures of a Chemist Collector.
The marriage didn’t last. He described his father as “a charming, shiftless gambler” who depended on his sister, Gisela Reich. After his father died, and his mother left, he was raised by his Jewish aunt, whom he always called mother. Young Alfred’s childhood was happy and deeply religious. That ended when Adolf Hitler took over Austria in March of 1938.
Jews came under increasing restrictions; young Alfred was forbidden to go to school. His aunt arranged to send him to England, as part of the Kindertransport, when the British government allowed in children under the age of 17 from Germany and German-annexed territories, such as Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Once the war started, many of those who were saved became “enemy aliens.” Alfred had just turned 16 when the British government arrested all Germans and Austrians 16 and older and sent them to camps, first on the Isle of Man, then to Australia and Canada. Alfred was held at a camp in Quebec, where a guard sexually molested him, according to his autobiography.
The younger men in the camp were allowed to write high school matriculation exams, and Alfred passed. Shortly afterward, he was released when Martin Wolff, a Jewish Montrealer, sponsored him, and he moved to a room in the Wolff family’s house in Westmount. He applied to three universities: McGill, Queen’s and the University of Toronto. He was turned down by the U of T and McGill, he thought because they had a quota on accepting Jews: “Jews had to have higher marks than Christians to be admitted, so Jews who were refused by McGill sought admittance to Queen’s,” Dr. Bader wrote in his autobiography.
That decision 78 years ago meant Queen’s today has a first-class theatre, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, several scholarships, an international study centre at the castle in England and three Rembrandts, along with many other valuable paintings.
“My father told me as a child and as an adult that being treated fairly by the folks at Queen’s was one of the biggest gifts that he had ever had in his life," his son Daniel said. “It’s clear that he wouldn’t have been where he was in life if it wasn’t for the chances that Queen’s gave him at a young age as an immigrant to Canada, as a refugee and as a Jew.”
Alfred Bader flourished at Queen’s and graduated with a degree in engineering chemistry with the medal in chemistry. He returned to Montreal and went to work for the Murphy Paint Co. Its owner, Harry Thorp, encouraged Alfred to go to Harvard and paid a large slice of his tuition. When he finished his PhD at Harvard in 1950, Murphy Paint had been sold to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. (PPG), and he moved to Milwaukee, Wis., to work with the new owners.
Just before that, he took a trip to Europe in 1949 that changed his life. He fell in love with Isabel Overton, a Canadian woman he met on the Franconia, an ocean liner sailing from Quebec City to Liverpool. They met on July 14, 1949, and nine days later he proposed marriage. She turned him down. Religion was one problem. He wanted to raise a Jewish family; she was from “a deeply religious Protestant family,” as he described them.
They corresponded for a while, but in 1950 Isabel cut off ties, and she didn’t come back into Alfred’s life until a quarter of a century later. In 1954, Dr. Bader married Helen Ann Daniels, known as Danny, an American Protestant who converted to Judaism. They had two sons, David and Daniel.
Dr. Bader started a tiny chemical business in a garage in Milwaukee in 1951 while working for PPG. It was called Aldrich Chemical Co., after the fiancée of his partner. Each man put in $250 to get the business going. The idea was to provide small amounts of chemicals to research scientists in universities and private laboratories. At the time, that industry was dominated by Eastman Kodak, which supplied chemicals in large batches and took a long time to deliver.
“He revolutionized the chemical industry. When you were buying chemicals for research, you had to go find which companies were making chemicals and you’d have to go directly to them to buy them, and these were scattered all over the world,” Daniel Bader said. “Aldrich would have different research quantities: everything from just a few grams up to kilos, so that a chemist from a government, university or food product lab could buy the chemical they needed in the quantity they needed and have it delivered quickly.”
In 1954, PPG moved its chemical lab to a town near Pittsburgh, and Dr. Bader went to work for Aldrich full time. It became an enormous success and was listed on the stock exchange. It merged with another firm and by the time Dr. Bader left in 1991, his original stake was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He was forced out in a corporate coup.
That left him free to pursue his other passions, art and philanthropy, and the greatest beneficiary of his largesse was Queen’s University.
In his personal life, Dr. Bader had reconnected with Isabel Overton, who at first was reluctant to get involved. Dr. Bader and his first wife divorced in 1981 and he and Isabel married shortly afterwards.
By 1991, when he left Aldrich as a rich man, he and Isabel were deeply involved in philanthropy. Isabel Bader had attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto on a scholarship, and the Baders were generous to Victoria College.
The couple spent several months a year in England and Europe. Mrs. Bader had a house in Bexhill, just south of London. Dr. Bader and his son David would visit galleries and auction houses in London. Dr. Bader’s interest was the Dutch school and had been since he was a boy when he was given 10 Austrian schillings to buy a camera and instead bought a print of work by a Dutch master. That print now hangs in a Museum in Milwaukee.
David Bader said his father would spend an entire day at Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction houses in London, sitting through an auction of 350 paintings, noting the price and sometimes the buyer. At this stage, he bought paintings, some to sell, some to keep in his collection, and some to send to Queen’s University. He worked with major art dealers in London and the United States.
In July of 1992, he noticed a real estate advertisement in the Times of London for Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, south of London. He and his wife went to see it. A Japanese firm had been prepared to pay £25-million for it, but the collapse of the Japanese property and stock markets forced the firm to back out. Negotiations went back and forth, and Dr. Bader eventually bought it for less than £4-million.
“Could I pay, they wondered? I urged them to check with my bank and with Sotheby’s just around the corner, to whom I had recently paid over £4-million for a Rembrandt,” Dr. Bader wrote. He also left Queen’s enough money to run the castle as an international study centre.
“Alfred Bader’s gifts were transformative for Queen’s. How many universities have three Rembrandts?” said Daniel Woolf, the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University (no relation to the Wolff family of Montreal). He said Dr. Bader was involved in his philanthropy, “but he realized there is a no-strings-attached policy. You can’t control your donations.”
For many years, Dr. Bader was on the Board of Trustees at Queen’s. Most of his personal art collection will go to Queen’s qnd all because the university admitted a penniless Jewish refugee from Nazi-ruled Austria.
“Alfred’s life was saved by the Kinderstransport. He left in December of 1938 and lived until December of 2018. That gave him 80 years,” Mrs. Bader said. “The important things in life for him were art and giving away money. When Mr. Wolff died in the late 1940s, he left Alfred $1,000. And he gave it to Queen’s.”
In addition to Queen’s, the Bader family’s foundation donates generously to causes in Wisconsin, Israel and elsewhere.
Dr. Bader was wealthy, but he was also frugal and politically liberal, in the American sense. When he was in London, he and his wife took the tube, never taxis. They stayed at less-expensive hotels. In the United States, he lived well, but he eschewed the trappings of wealth, such as country clubs. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election that Donald Trump won, Dr. Bader supported Bernie Sanders, according to his son David.
Dr. Bader leaves his wife, Isabel; sons Daniel and David; and seven grandchildren.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect degree for Dr. Bader. This version has been corrected.