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A. G. BECKER: FAMILY BACKGROUND AND EARLY LIFE

[The following information has been pieced together about A. G. Becker's early life and family background, drawing in part on a 1981 interview of Margaret (Marne) Becker Friedlich, A. G. Becker's youngest daughter. Her husband, Herbert Friedlich (prominent Chicago attorney) was at the interview and also contributed. Other sources of information include materials provided by Hortense Becker, widow of James Becker, son of A. G. Becker, and various newspaper clippings and other printed materials.]

A. G. Becker's father, Nathan Becker, was born on February 22, 1821 in a town near Frankfurt, Germany. He possibly was brought to America as a child, but more likely immigrated as a young man in about 1850, settling in Warsaw, Ohio, a rural town about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus. Nathan was married in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1853, to Henrietta Schaffner. In due course, the Beckers had three children: Viola, Rachel, and Abraham.

Nathan Becker came to Chicago in 1861 where he became a pioneer businessman. He entered the coal business in the 1880s and soon became a prominent dealer. In the 1890s, Nathan Becker lived and/or conducted business at 3217 Wabash Avenue. In the early 1900s, his business was at 178 La Salle Street and he lived at 4011 (or possibly 4911) Grand Boulevard. "Pa" Becker died of pneumonia in Chicago in 1907. His death followed by one year his 85th birthday, which was celebrated at his Hyde Park home with over 50 friends and members of a widely extended family, including other Beckers, the Friedmans, Sterns, Schaffners, Harts, Frankenthals, Rosenthals, Greenebaums, Elkans, Bergmans, and Eisendraths, among others, and also including the Jacob Newmans and Dr. Emil Hirsch. It was a gala affair celebrated with a program cutout in the profile of "Pa" Becker, and with songs in English and in German. Son A.G. and his wife, Kate (Kittie) Friedman, were in attendance, apparently along with some or all of their children.

A. G. Becker's father-in-law was Mr. Jacob Friedman, a nationally known and successful tobacco leaf dealer in Chicago. Within a few days of the great Chicago fire in 1871, a New York supplier received a check for $17,000 from the Friedman company with a note, "Your goods arrived just in time to be consumed by the great conflagration, with the balance of my stock." Many insurance companies and businessmen defaulted on their obligations, or reached settlements, but Jacob Friedman did not suggest any such procedure with his vendors -- he paid his debts one hundred cents on the dollar. As a newspaper obituary reported:

"There was hardly a gentlemen better known or liked in the trade . . . or a name more synonymous with rugged, old-fashioned honesty . . . (Jacob Friedman left) a name untainted and unspotted by the least flaw, honored, respected and revered alike wherever known, more enduring in its purity than any monument of marble."

One can hardly avoid speculating that this storied behavior of Jacob Friedman had some influence on his son-in-law A. G. Becker, when he committed some 15-20 years later to repay depositors of the defunct Herman Schaffner & Co. bank.

Herman Schaffner's father was Nathan Schaffner and is believed to have been the brother of A. G. Becker's mother, Henrietta Schaffner. Herman Schaffner married A. G. Becker's sister, Rachel. Thus, although usually referred to as a brother-in-law, Herman Schaffner was also A. G. Becker's cousin. Herman was born in Hesse-Darmstadt in 1846 or 1847 (according to the 1870 Census). The Nathan Schaffner family, consisting of mother Hanna and nine children (of whom Herman was the oldest) immigrated as a family from Gemany to Chicago in about 1865, when Herman was 18. He obtained immediate employment with Henry Greenebaum & Co.; his occupation was listed as "bank clerk" in the 1870 census. In 1871, the German National Bank was formed by the Greenebaums, at which time Herman soon (by early 1872) became Cashier of the Bank, which role is comparable to today's Chief Operating Officer, a quite responsible position for a 25-26 year old. Herman Schaffner had this role for some six years until the bank suspended operations in December, 1877. (See more about Henry Greenebaum and his banking activities elsewhere in this Chronicle).

In early 1878, Herman Schaffner left the German National Bank (then in liquidation), with his younger brother-in-law joining him, to found "Herman Schaffner & Co., Bankers." The new bank's first offices were at 123 La Salle Street, where the firm did business until 1881, and then moved to 125 La Salle Street. Apparently a further subsequent move was made before 1892 to the southwest corner of Madison and Dearborn. In the 1880 Census, Herman ("Banker") and Rachel (Becker) Schaffner are listed as living with their three young children in the in the West Jackson Street household of Nathan and Henrietta Becker, along with a son of Nathan, "H. E.," age 22, and also "Banker." It is reasonable to assume that the census taker noted "H. E." when he or she heard "A. G." Starting in 1882, Herman Schaffner was for a number of years the Treasurer of Michael Reese Hospital, and was also Treasurer of and very active volunteer with the United Hebrew Relief Association.

A. G. Becker was born on September 21, 1857, in Warsaw, Ohio, According to his obituary, he arrived in Chicago in 1865, at age 8, whereas his father -- according to his obituary -- arrived in 1861, four years earlier, perhaps in advance of his family, a common practice in those days. It was Marne Friedlich's thought that the Nathan Becker family probably lived on the west side of Chicago when first arriving, and then later moved to what is now the Hyde Park area. Marne remembered herbrother A. G. talking about being a newsboy at the time of the Chicago fire, in 1871 (at age 14), and "selling lots of extras." After his schooling, presumably completed about 1874, A. G. worked until late 1877 with his older brother-in-law, Hermann Schaffner, at the German National Bank, as above noted. In 1878, A. G. Becker, at age 21, joined his brother-in-law in his new venture.

A. G. Becker was active in Jewish social circles at a young age. He apparently joined the Standard Club in his early 20s, and was Treasurer for six years, 1885-1891, at the age of 28-34. He was one of eleven "managers" who reincorporated the Club in 1887. He and his wife were listed as attending the New Year Ball at the old Clubhouse in January 1, 1989. In 1886, in a newspaper story about the younger "marriageable" members of Standard Club, covering their appearance, personalities, and net worth, A. G. Becker was described as "Treasurer of the Club...30 years of age, blonde, a society man, and likes to drive a good horse. He lives on West Jackson Street, and is put down, by those who know something, at $100,000."

A. G. Becker and Kate (Kittie) Friedman were married on February 8, 1887. They had four children: Helen (b. 1888), Louise (b.1891), James (b.1894) and Margaret (b.1898). Marne Friedlich said that her mother and father when first married lived on Groveland (3232 from another source). After A. G's mother died, the family moved in with the Jacob Friedmans -- his wife Kittie's father and family -- in their house on Michigan Ave. Kittie had two older sisters and six brothers, five of whom -- Henry, Isaac, Joseph, Oscar, and Herbert -- were living there too. It was one large, happy, extended family.

When Jacob Friedman died sometime in 1892-3, the A. G. Becker family (then father, mother and two little daughters) moved to a rented house at 5123 East End Avenue (now Hyde Park Avenue), at which time, as Marne reported, it was "like living in the country," near the recently established University of Chicago. The A. G. Becker family apparently lived in that house until about 1922, when he moved with his wife to a mansion he built in Ravinia, in which home Marne and Herb Friedlich were married.

One can imagine that having lived in Jacob Friedman's home, with so many in-laws, it would be nice for the Beckers to settle down in their own home with their own family. But, with Herman Schaffner's death in mid-1893, A. G. Becker and his wife invited his widowed sister, Rachel, and her four children -- Robert, Arthur, Walter and Marion -- to live with them on East End Avenue. By December, 1894, little James Becker was born, joining two older sisters and the rest of the extended family.

In June, 1893, Robert Schaffner had been admitted to and was intending to enroll at Harvard College in the fall. Given the family's tragic circumstances and the uncertain financial situation, Robert instead immediately went to work for his Uncle Abe. Some 32 years later, upon the death of A. G. Becker, Robert Schaffner succeeded him as the firm's chief executive. Arthur Schaffner, the second oldest son, would attend college (Marne believed Yale), graduate 1898 from the Harvard Law School, and would in due course become counsel for A. G. Becker & Co.

As we will learn more later, David Stern, son of A. G. Becker's other sister, Viola, came to work for his Uncle Abe in 1902, and succeeded Robert Schaffner as Chairman of the firm upon Mr. Schaffner's death in 1946. James H. Becker, son of A. G. Becker, came to work for the firm in 1921 and succeeded David Stern as Chairman in 1961.

Originally posted: July 12, 2007

Edited and expanded: March 25, 2008 and January, 2009


   



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