You may have never met the late Helen Daniels Bader, but if you live in the Milwaukee area you know the name.
Her son, Daniel, says there’s plenty to miss about her.
“Probably the most was her smile she was a very compassionate person.”
Bader was a beloved philanthropist. She devoted her life to lifting others and left her fortune to organizations and causes that make Milwaukee stronger.
“She did an amazing thing. She left her wealth to the community. That’s one of the things she wanted to do. I don’t think she had any idea what impact that would have over time,” says Daniel. “One of the things she brought to the table is she loved people and she loved to meet people different from herself.”
The Helen Bader Foundation was founded in 1992 and is now an arm of Bader Philanthropies, which has given more than 300 million dollars to improve people’s lives, especially the underserved.
She amassed wealth after she and her husband founded Aldrich Chemical Company in 1951.
“My mother had a lot of money, because of the success of the company, but my mother dressed very modestly. She liked that, she just liked to blend in and not stick out,” Daniel says. “She did not want people to look at her as a wealthy person, she wanted people to look at her as an everyday Joe.”
Daniel says his mother was a lifelong student. Even the end of her marriage did not stop her from growing.
“My parents were divorced and as a result of that she decided to just reboot. She went through a master’s program at UWM school of social work and got a social work degree. That’s just who she was always learning and always trying new things,” Daniel says. “She wasn’t going to let the divorce stop her, she wanted to do things she wanted to help society and be her own person. Yes, it was a hiccup. But as a result of that hiccup, she went into a completely different direction. She was always learning. She was taken classes at UWM. She was taking classes in German, Wisconsin Conservatory of Art, violin, flamingo guitar. She was always learning. That’s just who she was.”
Daniel recalls the first time his mom met a 15-year-old Joan Prince who later became a UWM Vice-Chancellor.
“You had a young African American lady pacing in front of the building asking about the building,” he says. “She reached out to her, connected with her, brought her inside and showed her and connected her to the company.
Perhaps that’s what we should all be doing, instead of judging each other and telling someone they don’t have a future.
“It’s a great story with Dr. Prince. Something all of us need to continually be doing reaching out and helping each other even though we are sometimes very different from each other,” Daniel says.
Such stories can be found in An Independent Spirit: The Quiet, Generous life of Helen Daniels Bader. Author Priscilla Pardini traces Bader’s history and follows Helen Bader’s journey from Aberdeen, South Dakota. Bader was raised Christian during the depression but later converted to Judaism before becoming an entrepreneur, social worker, and philanthropist.
Daniel says, “She was really proud of her heritage from South Dakota and the prairie, she was proud of being a small-town girl who lived in a big city and she liked that.”
In the book, Daniel shares his mom could meet the homeless, university presidents, rabbis, CEOs, the elderly, and children — always with a smile on her face and a sense of dignity and compassion.
He adds, “We all kind of want the same things anyway, we all want to live a peaceful life, we want to have inner peace.”
Daniel emulates his mom’s compassion and is hopeful about the future. He believes good people far outweigh the bad.
“We need to get out of ourselves and help somebody else. That’s what my mom taught me and taught my brother and hopefully what we’re teaching our kids.”
“I’m, on this earth for a very simple mission, and that is to help other people,” Daniel admits. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of people in the community, fortunately, or maybe, unfortunately, they tend to be the quiet ones, the ones who are not making a lot of noise. They are the ones out there helping their neighbor, helping their kids, and doing the right thing. We focus on the people who are loud and causing trouble and not on the people who are doing good. But they are there, we’re here!”
Helen Daniels Bader lives on in several places in Milwaukee including the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, the Helen Bader Recital Hall at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
Helen Bader died of Ovarian Cancer at the age of 62 in 1989. But the legacy of a little girl born during the depression on a South Dakota prairie is steeped in Milwaukee.
If Daniel Bader could talk to his mom today?
“I would say I love you and thank you for all the love you gave me thank you for everything you taught me, were doing well, your grandchildren are doing well, and I miss you!”