Queen's Encyclopedia

Queen's Encyclopedia
Queen's Encyclopedia

Bader, Drs. Alfred and Isabel

[Alfred and Isabel Bader]

"Everything that has any connection with you, Alf, seems enchanted," Isabel wrote to him in 1949 - prophetically, as it turned out. But Alfred Bader's family background in pre-war Austria had been far from enchanted.

His grandfather, Moritz Ritter von Bader, was a Jewish civil engineer who worked with Ferdinand de Lesseps building the Suez Canal. His mother, Elizabeth Countess Serenyi, was the daughter of a Catholic Hungarian count. When she fell in love with his father, a middle-class Jew, her parents tried to have her committed to an asylum.

Despite this roadblock, they married in London, settled in Vienna, and had two children there. When his father died just two weeks after Alfred's birth in 1924, his mother was left with no income in a time of runaway inflation. Her sister-in-law adopted Alfred and raised him as a Jew. In 1938, after the infamous Kristallnacht (the Nazi attack on synagogues and many Jewish homes and businesses), Alfred was one of 10,000 mainly Jewish youngsters allowed to enter Britain.

In 1940, however, Churchill, alarmed by the possibility of 'fifth columnists' among the many German speaking refugees, decided to "collar the lot" and sent many between the ages of 16 and 65 as "enemy aliens" to internment camps in Canada and Australia. Alfred, just 16, was held in Quebec's Fort Lennox until the fall of 1941 when he was released into the care of a Montreal sponsor, Martin Wolff.

Martin Wolff became like a father to him, encouraging him in his desire for further education. While in the camp, Alfred had passed his matriculation exams easily, but upon release was promptly rejected by McGill because their Jewish "quota" was filled and by the University of Toronto because the chemistry department was doing sensitive war work. He applied to Queen's, where he was accepted in mid-term into the Faculty of Applied Science.

"I was a free man, I had been welcomed into a Canadian family and had been accepted by a prestigious Canadian university," he recalls. "I was determined to do my best."

Combining arts and science, as he has ever since, Alfred earned a number of Queen's degrees very quickly: a BSc in Engineering Chemistry in 1945 and a BA in History 1946, and an MSc in Chemistry 1947. He went on to complete his PhD in organic chemistry at Harvard in 1950. That year, he went to Milwaukee to work in research for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and the next year he started his own tiny chemical supply company - literally in a garage.

In 1949, travelling on the SS Franconia from Quebec City to Liverpool, Alfred met Isabel Overton (b. 1926), the daughter of a deeply religious Protestant family in Northern Ontario and a graduate of Victoria University in Toronto.

"How all the fellows at the university could have overlooked a woman of such inner and outer beauty, such goodness and intelligence was beyond my understanding," he later wrote. After the voyage, Alfred and Isabel spent many hours in London together and were enchanted with each other; after nine days, Alfred proposed marriage.

"During those nine days I thought of only two problems, one important, one trivial," he recalls, tongue-in-cheek. "How to bridge our differences in religion was the major issue. The minor one was whether our greatly different eating speeds would make life difficult, for I eat quickly and Isabel eats very slowly; indeed, she takes at least 20 minutes longer over a meal than I do. An hour a day is 365 hours a year...if we lived together for 30 years, I would spend an additional 456 days - well over a year - just eating. I concluded that Isabel was worth it."

Isabel eventually decided that Alfred should really marry a Jewish girl with whom he would build the family he so much wanted. Her book, A Canadian in Love, is based on the 82 letters she wrote to Alfred between their meeting in July 1949 and her sad decision in September 1950 not to write to him again. In 1952, Alfred married Helen Daniels, with whom he had two sons, David and Daniel. In 1981, Helen divorced Alfred so that he could marry Isabel, his first love.

When she was "rediscovered" by Alfred in England in 1975, Isabel had been teaching since 1949 at Bexhill in Sussex (close to the site of Herstmonceux Castle). There, she co-founded a drama school, and later, a costume museum. Isabel loves gardening, music and the theatre. She accompanies Alfred on his European lecture tours and visits with chemists. Like him, she is very interested in the Bible, old master paintings, and "investing" in research and scholarship. Wherever they are, they both attend synagogue faithfully.

With Isabel a close collaborator, Dr. Bader now spends his time dealing in paintings, writing and lecturing, "trying to help chemists," and giving away money sensibly. He finds the last of these the most difficult.

Although he is well known to international art auction houses, he takes particular pleasure in buying dirty old paintings in antique stores or at auctions and flea markets, hoping that cleaning will reveal great works. His special skill is in distinguishing work by Rembrandt's students from that of the master himself. Slide-illustrated tales of such detective work have held gallery audiences spellbound for years.

His close connection with the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) began in 1967 when Frances Smith, then the curator, asked him whether he would consider donating a painting to the fledgling gallery.

"I was pleased to be asked," he recalls, "and felt that Queen's would be a good home for the Salvator Mundi that had belonged to my grandfather. An early 16th century Italian painting, it did not really fit into my own collection, and from then on Queen's became the home of choice for beautiful paintings which I could not pass up, but knew were not really for me."

Despite their wealth, the Baders live modestly. Alfred's favourite painting in his house is a large biblical scene titled Joseph and the Baker, at one time attributed to Rembrandt. This painting and another Dutch biblical scene, Angel Appearing to Hagar, seem to embody the things in life that Alfred holds dear: God, good works, and help of the neediest and the ablest.

Alfred and his wife Isabel have contributed to academic excellence through academic chairs in art history and chemistry and through awards in many disciplines. Their gifts made to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre of old master paintings - including three Rembrandts - have made the AEAC's collection the finest university collection in Canada.

In a magnanimous philanthropic gesture, the couple funded the purchase by the university of a 15th century English castle, Herstmonceux, which has been meticulously restored and is now home to the Bader International Study Centre.

The Baders also gave $31 million in support of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts - a much needed facility that is now a hub for the arts at Queen's and involving music, drama, art, film, and many other departments. For the broader Kingston community, there is now a facility in this region that can appropriately accommodate world-class performers and performances.

A self-made millionaire, Alfred Bader is a survivor, an astute businessman, a connoisseur, and a scholar. With typical modesty, Alfred Bader wrote in 1995: "Whenever I have contemplated any achievement in my life, I have marveled how many and how diverse are the people who have made it possible."

Such is the background that helped to shape the fascinating personality of Alfred Bader, Queen's University's most generous benefactor.


Alfred Bader, 1924-2018: Celebration of an extraordinary life

Alfred Bader, BSc’45, BA’46, Msc’47, LLD’86, died on December 23 at the age of 94. Dr. Bader’s connection to Queen’s spanned more than 70 years. The generosity of Dr. Bader and his wife Isabel Bader, LLD’07, transformed Queen’s in countless ways. As Principal Daniel Woolf has noted, Dr. Bader’s legacy at Queen’s "will live on in future generations who will be enriched by his profound love for this university."

Video: In memory of Alfred Bader

A hunger for knowledge

Alfred Bader – an Austrian Jew of Czech descent – arrived at Queen’s on Nov. 15, 1941, greeted by University Registrar Jean Royce. Professor Arthur Jackson showed Alfred around campus before instructing the new student to go to the chemistry building to claim a locker and equipment for lab work.

Alfred's circuitous path to Queen’s began in Vienna in 1938. He left high school reluctantly, as Jewish children in Austria were then forbidden to stay in school past the age of 14. That same year, he was sent to England under the Kindertransport program, which removed thousands of Jewish children from Germany and German-annexed countries. In 1940, with other German-speaking refugees, he was deported to Canada, where he was detained in an internment camp in southern Quebec. Alfred was released from the camp in the fall of 1941 thanks to Martin Wolff, a Montreal journalist and historian, who sponsored Alfred and took the teenager under his wing.

"My life was changed by the kindness and generosity of the Wolff family and Queen's University."
Alfred Bader

With Mr. Wolff’s encouragement and support, Alfred decided to further his education. He was accepted at Queen’s and he began his studies mid-term in the Faculty of Applied Science.

"I was a free man, I had been welcomed into a Canadian family and had been accepted by a prestigious Canadian university," he recalled in his autobiography. "I was determined to do my best."

[Alfred Bader yearbook photo]

Alfred Bader's 1945 graduation photo from the Tricolor'45 Yearbook

Alfred flourished at Queen’s, getting involved in many aspects of campus life. He became a member of Science’44 student co-op in second year. "I do not think I was a good member of the co-op," he wrote. "I certainly didn’t enjoy snow shovelling or peeling potatoes, yet most of the members were patient with me, and I admired their savvy."

He joined the Debating Society and won the Roberta McCulloch Scholarship in Public Speaking in 1945. "How silly could I get? Public speaking – and me with my thick German accent! [But] I tried and won."

Hints of Alfred’s future as a gifted chemist and passionate supporter of arts and culture appeared during his undergraduate studies. His dissertation on rare metals earned him first place in the Technical Paper Competition. Soon after completing his Bachelor of Science in engineering chemistry, he completed a Bachelor of Arts in history. He remained at Queen’s for his Master of Science in chemistry before attending Harvard University and receiving his PhD in organic chemistry in 1950.

"He never forgot the opportunities that a university education opened up for him," says Queen's Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf.

A desire to give back

Reminiscing to the Queen’s Alumni Review in 1991, Alfred wrote, "When I was accepted by Queen's in mid-1941, I was scared and shy and selfish. Scared because I’d been told on leaving the camp that I must not tell anyone where I’d been and had to report weekly to the RCMP. Shy because what could I say to fellow students who told me they’d come from Glebe or Lisgar or KCVI and then asked where I’d come from in the middle of November? And selfish because I thought one had to be to survive. Yet my fellow students in class and in Collins House, the Sc’44 Co-op, put up with me. And many of the professors, Registrar Jean Royce, and Dr. W.E. McNeill, who introduced me to debating, treated me wonderfully – as an individual, not as POW #156."

"This kindness brought me out of my shell, and over the years my contacts and interactions with Queen's staff, alumni, and students have continued to give me great pleasure."

The beneficiary of several student awards and bursaries himself, Alfred always knew he would help other students, given the opportunity. In 1948, while he was a student at Harvard, Alfred suffered the loss of Martin Wolff, who had been like a father to him. Mr. Wolff left $1,000 in his will to Alfred. Instead of putting those funds toward his own education, Alfred used the inheritance to establish the Martin Wolff Scholarships in Civil Engineering at Queen’s.

[The Baders with students]

The Baders in 2003 with some of the many Queen's students who have benefitted as recipients of the Bader Awards. (Photo: Queen's Alumni Review)

Alfred would go on to establish many more awards, bursaries, and fellowships at Queen’s, giving numerous students access to the educational experience that had changed his life. Among the awards is the Principal Wallace Freedom of Opportunity Award, which Alfred and his wife Isabel established in 2013. The award, named in honour of the principal who paved the way for the young refugee to come to Queen’s in 1941, goes to a first-year international student entering an undergraduate program; preference is given to a refugee student.

Alfred’s support for students and researchers went far beyond just providing financial support. A lifelong scholar, he took a great interest in the work being done at Queen’s. "During his visits to campus with his beloved wife Isabel, Alfred delighted in meeting with scholars, students, and other friends, to exchange ideas and to encourage them in their fields of studies," Principal Woolf says.

A man of high standards

Alfred Bader, an astute entrepreneur, built his fortune through the chemistry industry. He worked as a research chemist with a paint company in Pittsburgh soon after graduating from Harvard. At the same time, he co-founded Aldrich Chemical Company, which specialized in supplying reliable chemicals for research purposes. The company grew to be an industry leader.

Even as his business ventures enjoyed immense success, Alfred never defined himself solely by his work. He referred to himself as a "chemist collector," acknowledging his twin passions for science and the arts. "Paintings do cause strong emotions," he wrote, "and I buy for my own collection only paintings I really love." He also desired to share his paintings, knowing that they would inspire other art lovers and scholars. In 1967, Frances Smith, the curator of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at that time, asked Alfred if he would be interested in donating a painting to the gallery. Alfred agreed, giving the campus art gallery an early 16th-century painting that had belonged to his grandfather.

Over the years, Alfred entrusted to the Agnes nearly 200 paintings from the Baroque era, including three paintings by Rembrandt. Alfred transformed the study and appreciation of art at Queen’s through his sustained and extraordinary generosity, according to Jan Allen, the director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

"As a result of his vision and passion, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre ranks among world centres for the study of the School of Rembrandt," she says. "Through endowment of the Curator and Researcher of European Art and through timely support for research and publication projects, facilities, and programs, Dr. Bader has ensured wide enjoyment of this enduring legacy."

"A great many Queen’s people have helped me, and I have tried to repay those many acts of kindness by helping others. At the end of my days, I pray that I will have succeeded as Queen’s succeeded with me – in helping others in their professions, in their perspectives, in their realization of their potential."
Alfred Bader, addressing students after receiving an honorary degree from Queen’s in 1987

Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art, worked closely with Alfred, much like her predecessor, David de Witt. Dr. Coutré says Alfred’s impeccable eye and true thirst for knowledge shaped The Bader Collection at the Agnes into one of the most formidable collections of Rembrandt and Rembrandt School works.

"Clearly invigorated by the pursuit of new acquisitions, he built the collection with great discernment and thought." she says. "The gift of Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo in 2015 exemplified his collecting sensibility: a spectacular late portrait by the master that unites The Bader Collection in rich ways."

While delivering a vast world of art to campus, Alfred also sought to extend Queen’s global presence by donating the 15th-century Herstmonceux Castle to the university in 1993. The 500-hectare estate in East Sussex, U.K., is now home to the Bader International Study Centre (BISC), which offers a number of programs on its historic campus as well as access to learning opportunities throughout Europe, including the study of art in many museums and galleries.

[Alfred and Isabel on the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle]

Alfred and Isabel on the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle in 1998. (Photo by Andrew Hasson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Herstmonceux Castle is a unique asset for Queen’s at a time when internationalization is, more than ever, a key element of the university’s success and reputation, according to Tom Harris, Queen’s interim Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic).

"For 20 years now, students from Queen’s and from all over the world have had a transformative educational experience at the spectacular Herstmonceux Castle," Dr. Harris says. "The castle is a proud and central part of the larger-than-life legacy of the Baders."

Another stellar aspect of that legacy is the spectacular Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2014. In discussions with Queen’s, Alfred said he wanted to do something special as a legacy to his wife, Isabel. Alfred and Isabel initially met in 1949 and developed a strong bond over the next year, before deciding to part ways in 1950.

Alfred and Isabel reconnected in 1975 at Bexhill in Sussex, close to Herstmonceux Castle, where Isabel was teaching. Isabel’s love of music and theatre prompted Alfred to provide a transformative gift for the creation of an acoustically superior concert hall and theatre at Queen’s. The new home for the creative arts at Queen’s, located on the shore of Lake Ontario, also serves as a hub of vibrant artistic study, creation, and exhibition for Kingston and the region.

[The Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts]

The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, opened its doors in 2014.

"Alfred set his vision and standards high," says Tricia Baldwin, the director of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. "He was a man who detested mediocrity and treasured the vigour of excellence. His creation of this state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary centre is but one example. Many do well in life, but not all have the will and imagination to create something extraordinary that transforms the lives of others."

Alfred and Isabel attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the performing arts centre in October 2009 While Alfred’s remarks that day were in reference to the performing arts centre, they now read as a summation of his enduring commitment to Queen’s and his unceasing belief in the power of education and the arts.

"Queen’s has grown in size, student numbers, and many other ways since my happy and life-altering days in the early ’40s," he said. "The world seems to have gotten smaller, and we need even greater opportunities to interpret, understand, and appreciate our world."

[Alfred Bader]