"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 two 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.