The Baders: A tale of two hearts
“Everything that has any connection with you, Alf, seems enchanted,” Isabel Overton remarked in one of her hundreds of love letters to beau Alfred Bader.
A philanthropic and art collecting pair, the Baders are Queen’s most generous donors; having gifted the university with millions of dollars over the years, many scholarships, as well as funding the purchase of Herstmonceux Castle, donating over 100 paintings including two Rembrandts, and partially financing the newly opened Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.
“For all of Alfred’s success, this is the defining narrative of his life, his love for Isabel,” says producer and writer Alison Armstrong, of CBC’s Love Interrupted documentary series.
This Valentine’s Day we’re re-telling one of Queen’s greatest love stories, one which has been told through articles, the book A Canadian in Love, a compilation of Isabel’s letter to Alfred and even CBC Radio’s documentary series. All of these sources have been consulted to bring you a tale that will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy in this frigid weather.
Born in Vienna, Alfred was brought up by his Jewish aunt, who later perished in a concentration camp during the war. At age 14, with no family, Alfred was one of 10 000 mainly Jewish children sent to Britain, through an agreement of the government as a result of Kristallnacht -an organized massacre and roundup of Jewish people as well as attacks on synagogues and Jewish buildings and houses in Germany and Austria. Two years later, Winston Churchill sent these ‘enemy aliens’ to Canadian and Australian internment camps, which is how Alfred found himself in Canada.
Upon meeting a sponsor in his Quebec Fort Lennox camp, Martin Wolff, Alfred was released and applied first to McGill, which rejected him because their Jewish quota was full, and then to the University of Toronto, which was doing sensitive war work. However, he was welcomed by Queen’s, where he completed a BSc in Engineering Chemistry, a BA in History and an MSc in Chemistry, going on to complete his PhD in Organic Chemistry at Harvard in 1950.
Isabel Overton grew up in northern Ontario, in a modest, highly moral Protestant family. Her father had come to Canada in 1906, making a living in a carpentry shop of a gold mine. Dreaming of visiting England, to see her family’s roots, Isabel seized the opportunity after completing her degree at Victoria University in Toronto. Education was important to Isabel, who was an Ontario scholarship winner. She and good friend Ruth Hunt, sailed aboard the SS Franconia on July 9, 1949, from Quebec City to Liverpool, in Britain. On the fifth day of the crossing, Isabel Overton met Alfred Bader, who proposed to her only a short nine days later. Though both immediately felt a spark that would ignite an epistolary romance, Isabel did not accept his marriage proposal. They began corresponding through a series of letters spanning July 1949 to October 1951.
“During those nine days I thought of only two problems, one important, one trivial,” Alfred 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.”
That summer Isabel and Ruth biked around England, touring the countryside and staying in youth hostels. Meanwhile, Alfred went to Austria, eventually returning to England for his sister’s wedding and thereafter visiting Isabel. They spent a week together in Sussex–later the location of the current Bader International Study Centre, the castle he gifted to Queen’s–Isabel looking for teaching jobs and meeting Alfred’s friends, ending the week together at the Edinburgh Festival.
Isabel accepted a teaching position in English and History at a private school in Bexhill-on-Sea, a small seaside resort, leaving Alfred to return to North America, where he was finishing his PhD at Harvard. They kept close in each other’s lives through letters, Isabel describing her Christmas adventures in Paris and Switzerland with Ruth –detailing their visit to the Louvre, french bread and window shopping at little boutiques. She met friends of Alfred’s, picking up a watch for his sister and sending a sweater to him. Alfred sent a turkey and nylons–a great luxury during these rationed periods–as well as Ivory soap on another occasion. The letters describe more of Isabel and Ruth’s adventures as they cycled through Wales and Ireland on winding roads–her notes expressing a subtle love for Alfred, showing concern for his health and following his career closely.
Isabel and Alfred exchanged 80 letters between their meeting in July 1949 and her sad decision in September 1950 not to write to him again. Isabel knew that Alfred was very eager to marry, and didn’t feel that she could make a sudden decision to become Jewish, but Alfred would need a Jewish wife to have Jewish children. She felt it would be better for him to forget about her and meet a Jewish girl.
“I don’t know what to say, Alf. Everything I do or don’t do seems to be wrong,” Isabel remarks in one of her last letters.
Alfred remarks in his autobiography later, “In our first 80 letters Isabel had indicated in increasingly strong terms we could not marry. I needed a Jewish wife and she could not be that.”
Alfred moved to Milwaukee, where he took up a position as a research chemist, and soon began his own small business, which, as the Aldrich Chemical Company, became, in time, the world’s largest supplier of research chemicals.
Isabel returned to Canada for the summer wedding of her sister in 1951. She wondered if Alfred might come to the wedding, but he was incorporating Aldrich that very week.
At that point, Isabel’s mother wrote to Alfred, secretly, twice that same year encouraging him to reach out to her: “You were so wonderful to her…She seems so frustrated, her head saying one thing and her heart another. It makes no difference you are Jewish. She loves you, and the normal outcome is a husband, and home and children. I told her we would be happy for her to raise the children in the Jewish Faith. She even cried one Sunday on the lawn to her father, saying ‘Daddy, I have been crying for the past year.’ So it has not been easy for her”. This was not enough though, and their story ends temporarily in 1951, when Isabel returned to England where she taught for another 30 years, specializing in drama, French, and Spanish.
In 1975, Alfred had recurring nightmares about Isabel’s father asking why Alfred was not with Isabel. A true romantic, he had fallen in love with Isabel over 30 years before he could hold her hand in marriage. Alfred was feeling caught between loyalty to his family and his long-held feelings for Isabel.
He had no idea where she was, but obtained her address from her brother, a Queen’s alumnus, by contacting Queen’s.
Alfred wrote to Isabel, suggesting they should meet when he next came to Europe. Isabel agreed. Alfred called her, to tell her when he would arrive. Isabel had just received a call from her sister to say that their father had died. Alfred came to Bexhill a few days later.
Alfred asked if he could take Isabel to lunch or dinner the following day. She agreed, but when he told her of his love for her, she felt it was unwise to see him again, and told him to go away.
Alfred pursued even the chance to see Isabel by visiting her mother twice in that year, and then trying to see Isabel again the following year, only for her to decline again.
Finally they met again in 1977, sending letters until 1981, when Alfred’s wife asked for a divorce. Isabel then married Alfred in 1982 and later converted.
Several years later, Alfred left his chemical company and pursued his passion as an avid art collector and dealer, going on to travel around the world with Isabel, hoping to find lost artistic treasure. The two are happily married and still act like newlyweds even decades later.
This Valentine’s Day, take a moment to acknowledge this couple who has contributed to Queen’s in countless ways. The Baders have transformed the campus, enriched student experience, supported scholarship, and helped to enhance the University’s reputation as a top-tier educational institution. A self-made millionaire, Alfred Bader is a survivor, an astute businessman, a connoisseur, and a scholar.
Writing in 1995, Alfred remarked: “Whenever I have contemplated any achievement in my life, I have marvelled how many and how diverse are the people who have made it possible.”
Isabel Overton may just have been the most important one.
Happy Valentine’s Day Queen’s!
“A Canadian In Love“, Isabel Overton Bader 2000
“Alfred and Isabel Bader featured on CBC”, Queen’s Gazette 2009
“Absent Hearts That Grew Fonder”, Whig Standard 2009
“Love and History”, Canadian Literature 2011
“Alfred and Isabel Bader: Transforming Queen’s through Philanthropy“, Queen’s University, 2015