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From the principal: Remembering Alfred Bader

From the principal: Remembering Alfred Bader

[photo of Queen's campus]

This is a column that I had very much hoped I would never have to write during my decade as principal. Our alma mater lost one of its greatest friends and benefactors over the holiday break with the passing of Dr. Alfred Bader at the age of 94. Alfred had been in declining health for the last several years, and when I last paid him and Isabel a visit in the spring of 2018 at their home in Milwaukee, he was not able to speak very much. Isabel as always was by his side and their happy marriage – a story in its own right –and devotion to each other remained apparent.

Like many alumni, I first knew of Dr. Bader only through the pages of the Alumni Review, never imagining I would meet the man in person. Almost exactly 10 years ago, within days of the public announcement of my appointment as the university’s 20th principal, and at that point still in my previous job, I got an email from Alumni Relations asking if I would take a call from Dr. Bader. I was delighted. Having followed his various gifts to the university over the years (a castle in England and Rembrandts? As a historian of Britain and early modern Europe, how could that not excite me?), I knew this would give me an opportunity to thank him in person. Interestingly, very little of the call involved lingering on past gifts – Alfred (as he asked me to call him within the first two minutes) brushed that off with “Well, I’m 84 and you can’t take it with you.” Most of the call was spent discussing the state of the university, my plans as principal, my past academic career (though he had done his homework) and, most personally and touchingly, our common experience as Jews growing up, admittedly in very different times, in a predominantly Christian environment. We had a great deal in common despite an age difference of more than 30 years and in his case a much tougher childhood and young adulthood in Europe, Britain, and Canada. Naturally, he was keen to establish that I was not going to do something drastic to solve the university’s pressing financial problems such as sell the castle or the paintings. I had no difficulty then and there indicating that as principal I would be highly unlikely to make any such recommendation to the Board of Trustees, not least because one-time sales of valuable assets, however tempting, are never a fix for structural and continuing problems. He was reassured. I finally met Alfred and Isabel in person shortly after I took up office, at a ceremonial sod-turning for what is now “The Isabel.” The opening of the building still lay five years in the future, but it was an exciting day, though rather cold and damp.

Alfred spoke eloquently about his commitment to Queen’s, and the relationship he had enjoyed with nine (now ten) principals, going back to Principal Robert Wallace, under whose tenure he spent his undergraduate years, amid a much smaller campus where the principal knew most students and the registrar, Jean Royce, knew everyone. In subsequent years he would wax nostalgic on the Queen’s of the past, giving me his take on the strengths of the university but also on areas in which he thought we might have done better and (more important to him), where we might now improve for the future. 

Above all, Alfred and Isabel wanted to help. When it became clear that the Isabel Bader Centre could not be completed on budget without significant changes, he quickly stepped in with a further contribution. At one point, out of the blue, he indicated that he wanted to do something to assist me in my endeavours and provided a million-dollar gift (as always by cheque sent in a plain brown envelope that he had addressed and put multiple 10-cent stamps on – no couriers for him) for use at “principal’s discretion.” This is what became the two-year Bader post-doctoral humanities fellowships program. Alfred knew the university aspired to become more international as well as more diverse, and he felt this especially acutely given his own background as a refugee student – the result of this impulse was his creation of the Principal Wallace Freedom of Opportunity Award, given to international students entering first year at Queen’s, with preference given to refugee students.

I shan’t go on listing the benefactions, because they would fill much more than my allotted space. Alfred was inordinately thrifty in small things (the refusal to use couriers, for instance), and generous in big ones. But it is his generosity of spirit that always came through. On his and Isabel’s visits to Kingston, the frequency of which gradually declined with his health, we invariably had a teatime discussion at the Donald Gordon Conference Centre, where I would update him on Queen’s. Alfred had strong opinions on many things, and he could (and did!) ask tough questions. He was invariably interested in how the Bader International Study Centre was faring, how building was progressing on "The Isabel," and how his named professors were doing. But he also always – himself a former Queen’s trustee – understood that sometimes hard decisions had to be taken, and respected them even if he might have preferred a different outcome.

[photo of Principal Woolf and Alfred Bader at one of their teatime discussions, in 2014]

Alfred’s identity as a Jew was very important to him, though it notably did not define or delimit his generosity. In Judaism we have a saying, “Tikkun Olam,” which translates as “repair, or heal, the world,” a term that has ancient origins but in recent decades has become associated with social action and a duty to make life better for one’s fellow humans. Alfred Bader took this as both an ethical duty and a joy. His and Isabel’s legacies will endure at Queen’s, and in the many other causes he supported, such as his local community, Milwaukee, for decades or more. As we also say in Judaism of the recently departed, Z”L: may his memory be a blessing.

[cover image of Queen's Alumni Review issue 1, 2019, showing a photo of Alfred Bader]