Alfred Bader: Chemical company magnate, Milwaukee philanthropist dies at age 94

, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Alfred Bader, a chemist, philanthropist and art collector who escaped the Holocaust in Europe and built a chemical company in Milwaukee, died Sunday.

Bader was 94 and died peacefully, the family said. His wife, Isabel, was at his side.

Through hard work and attention to detail, Bader fostered a lengthy and successful business career.

"From my first days in Milwaukee, chemistry, the Bible and art have been the interconnected motifs of my life," Bader wrote in his autobiography, "Adventures of a Chemist Collector."

He co-founded Aldrich Chemicals in 1951 out of a rented garage in Milwaukee. The firm later merged with Sigma-Aldrich Corp., which is now owned by Merck KGaA of Germany. Bader left the board in 1992.

He was also president of Milwaukee-based Alfred Bader Fine Arts.

Over the years, Bader created numerous grants and scholarships, donating hundreds of millions of dollars. He also worked with people from vulnerable populations, including the Roma population in central Europe.

In 1993, he and his wife bought a castle in Sussex, England, and donated it to his alma mater, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, to serve as the university's international study center.

Bader's charitable work will be carried on through Bader Philanthropies, which merged the philanthropic interests of he and wife Isabel and those of his first wife, the late Helen Bader.

"He had an incredible life," said Bader's son Daniel, who oversees Bader Philanthropies. "He built an incredible dynasty with his business accomplishments. He has a legacy in three different areas. In art, chemistry and philanthropy."

Bader's older son, David, said his father was drawn to 17th-century European paintings, particularly from the Rembrandt School. He said his father appreciated the "down-to-earth" quality of the works.

"As a boy, he collected stamps and traded stamps," David Bader said. "So there was always an urge to acquire and sell collections."

Bader's extraordinary life reflected the turbulent times, carrying him from Austria to Great Britain to Canada and finally, the United States.

Born April 28, 1924, in Vienna, Bader was just 2 weeks old when his father, who was Jewish, died. His mother was the daughter of a Catholic-Hungarian count. His father's sister adopted him and raised him as a Jew, and he later formally converted. She later died in a concentration camp.

Bader was part of what became known as the Kindertransport. Just 14, with a small suitcase, a 5-pound British note and his stamp collection, he left Vienna. He was among 10,000 mainly Jewish youths allowed into Britain after the Nazis' 1938 Kristallnacht attack of Jewish-owned businesses, buildings and synagogues across Germany.

In 1940, Bader and other German-speaking refugees were rounded up by the British as enemy aliens. He was sent to an internment camp in Canada, where he stayed for 1½ years.

"I didn't know it at the time, but it was a useful time. I got a very good education. No girls to distract me," he said during a 2016 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

College was in his future.

"McGill (University) wouldn't accept me. They had a Jewish quota," he said. The University of Toronto was doing sensitive research and didn't want enemy aliens, Bader recalled, adding: "That's foolish; I'm not an enemy alien."

Queen's University in Ontario accepted him, creating a lifelong bond. He studied chemistry and history there, and later went to Harvard University, where he earned a PhD in organic chemistry.

He came to Milwaukee in 1950 as a $400-a-month research chemist with Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. A year later, he and a friend, Jack Eisendrath, an attorney, set up a chemical firm. They named it after Eisendrath's fiancée, Betty Aldrich.

In 1952, Bader married Helen Daniels, a South Dakota native who earned a degree in botany at Downer College in Milwaukee. Known as Danny, Helen converted to Judaism, raised two sons and helped her husband in the business.

Alfred and Helen divorced in 1981. He then married his lost love, Isabel Overton, whom he had first met on a 1949 trans-Atlantic cruise from Canada to Liverpool.

Bader suffered a stroke in 2010. But he made it clear that retirement was not an option.

David recalled visiting his father in October. They bonded over art.

"I brought him a painting I thought he'd like and he really did like it," he said. "He waved and was excited to see it. Even in his later years, he was looking for quality."

Besides his wife, Isabel, and sons David and Daniel and their spouses, Bader is survived by seven grandchildren and other relatives and friends. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Goodman-Bensman Funeral Home, 4750 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay. Burial will follow at Second Home Cemetery, 3705 S. 43rd St., Milwaukee. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that  memorial contributions be made to Lake Park Synagogue "or the charity of your choice."

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