Becker’s story inspires Waterloo school board
Never underestimate the power of the printed word …or the power of history!
On January 12, the board of education serving the Waterloo School District showed that it truly believes in the power of history to educate, inform and inspire.
That night, the board voted unanimously to name a new school in honor of Fred Becker, a young Waterloo native who gave his life during World War I. Becker’s service helped to ensure that Iowans, and all Americans, would continue to live in a freedom-loving society, and the board’s action 93 years later ensured that such patriotism, sacrifice and inspiration will be remembered by following generations.
The naming of the school was the culmination of an effort by several dedicated persons to make sure that the heroism of this young Iowan did not disappear into the mists of time.
Regarding the power of the printed word – I would like to think that Iowa History Journal played a small role in keeping alive Becker’s memory and, ultimately, in the actions of the Waterloo school board. An oil portrait of Lt. Becker in his Marine uniform adorned the cover of the fifth issue of Iowa History Journal, published in October of 2009.
The story of Fred Becker and his short but extremely impactful life had been lost for nearly eight decades when I stumbled across it nearly three years ago. A graduate of East Waterloo myself, I was walking around the building and relieving some old memories when I spotted at the front entrance a bronze plaque that I had never noticed before. I walked up for a closer look and saw the following inscription:
“In Memoriam to the boys of this school who gave their lives for freedom’s cause. Lieut. Fred H. Becker, ’14, died July 18, 1918, at Chateau-Thierry. Pvt. Lynn E. Miller, died October 9, 1916, at Camp Dodge – In Appreciation, East High Class of 1920.”
I knew from my sportswriting career that Fred Becker was the name of the first All-American football player in the long history of the University of Iowa, but I doubted that this hero on the plague at my alma mater could be the same Fred Becker. But I became determined to find out.
Research in the Waterloo Public Library led me to the truth: The Fred Becker who was honored on this 1920 plaque and who graduated from East Waterloo was the same person who had made sports history at the University of Iowa!
As my research efforts increased, I discovered that Fred was one of the most popular students to ever attend East High and was well liked in Iowa City, as well. Most importantly, time and again the newspaper accounts talked about his “fighting spirit.” It was that fighting sprit that would serve him well on the football field, and eventually lead to his death World War I.
Sent with American troops to the Western Front of the war, in France, Becker was commissioned a lieutenant in the Marines. He was wounded early in the summer of 1918. He returned to battle a short time later and charged a hill to take out a German machine gun nest. According to the official military reports, his heroic action saved the lives of many comrades. Shortly afterwards, he was once again in the front of his troops when he was killed by a single shot to the throat.
At age 22, Fred Becker’s life was over! He was buried where he fell in France.
After the war, many American doughboys were brought home for reburial. Becker’s body arrived in Waterloo in May of 1921 and an estimated 5,000 attended his funeral on May 14. In a graveside talk, the East High School principal said that it was Becker’s goal to become a surgeon and save lives, not take them in war.
Becker was lionized on the floor of the Iowa legislature in glowing terms and there was an effort to get the Hawkeye football field named for him, but it didn’t happen. However, Waterloo named American Legion Post 138 for Becker and Carl Chapman, a graduate of rival West High who also was killed in action.
Through the years, the story of Becker faded away. Even Phil Haddy, the longtime sports information director at Iowa, didn’t know for sure where Becker was from. When I told Haddy what I had discovered about Iowa’s first All-American, he invited me to write a story about him for the Iowa-Purdue football program in November 2008.
Several months after the story appeared, Les Steenlage, Iowa associate athletic director, called me to say that Becker had just been voted into the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame. He had been on the ballot for many years but had attracted very few votes. The story in the football program had made his story much better known.
The momentum began to grow when we put Fred on the cover of Iowa History Journal in 2009. He was subsequently voted into the East High Athletic Hall of Fame, and he was one of four Iowa athletes featured in the book Triumph and Tragedy: The Inspiring Stories of Fred Becker, Jack Trice, Nile Kinnick and Johnny Bright (see the ad on page 26).
As the author of the book, I was invited to give speeches at various spots around the state and the legend of Fred Becker continued to grow. I was on a dozen radio talk shows; Iowa Public Radio even devoted a full hour to the book, starting out with a long segment on the Becker chapter.
All of this culminated on January 12, when the Waterloo Board of Education voted unanimously to name its new school Fred Becker Elementary.
Many Waterloo citizens rallied to the cause, led by Major General (retired) Curly Hultman, former Attorney General for Iowa and a standout athlete at both East High and Iowa. Don and Donna Huff, two well-known teachers; Jeff Frost, former West High athletic director, Gary Lee, an East High grad whose granddaughter attends school in Waterloo; and Randy Herod, head of the Black Hawk County Veterans Association, all were supporters of naming something major in the city for Becker.
School board member Mike Young, a local attorney and product of the Waterloo school system, was also struck by the inspirational and historic components of the story and was very supportive of the efforts to honor the World War I hero.
The lesson of the Fred Becker story? Never underestimate the power of the printed word…or the power of history! And I’m proud to say Iowa History Journal played a role in keeping alive the memory of this Iowa icon.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)