Hugh Becker was a modest, frugal man whose passion for fishing and the outdoors ran so deep he left his entire $3 million estate primarily to benefit fish and anglers.
His life was remarkable — from baseball fields at the University of Minnesota, to battlefields in the South Pacific in World War II, to his efforts to bolster fish and wildlife conservation in Minnesota.
Becker, a die-hard muskie angler, worked for years as a physical therapist at the former Minneapolis Veterans Administration hospital. He never married and had no relatives, so when it came time to consider what to do with his fortune, the decision was easy. He set up a nonprofit foundation that — in perpetuity — funnels the yearly earnings of those millions to the Twin Cities Chapter of Muskies Inc., which Becker helped start, and to the little Chippewa Rod and Gun Club in Chippewa Falls, Wis., where he fished.
“The money goes to fisheries, stocking, habitat work and youth programs,’’ said George Selcke of Minnetonka, a friend of Becker’s and chairman of the Hugh C. Becker Foundation.
Since Becker’s death in 2007 at age 89, almost $700,000 has been distributed. The principal continues to grow, so his legacy will live indefinitely. Yet, most Minnesotans — even the 1.5 million anglers — probably have never heard of Hugh Becker.
Who was this guy, where did he get all of that money, and why did he leave it to benefit muskies and muskie fishing?
Here’s his tale:
A stroke of luck
Becker was born in Olivia, Minn., grew up in south Minneapolis and attended Washburn High School. He lettered in baseball at the University of Minnesota from 1938-1940, and was a weightlifting champion. When World War II broke out, he joined the Marines and saw action at Guadalcanal and Okinawa in the South Pacific as an artillery officer. After the war, Becker worked as a physical therapist.
But physical therapists don’t make millions. His top salary was $17,500.
A stay at the Naval Base in San Diego shortly after the war changed his future — and, strangely, the future of muskies in Minnesota and elsewhere. A wealthy San Diego family befriended Becker, taught him about investing and, when they died, left him a substantial inheritance.
“He received something like $51,000 a year from 1949 to 2000,’’ Selcke said. “He never touched it; he would just invest that money. He was a very shrewd investor.’’
Despite his wealth, he lived frugally. Except when it came to fishing.
“He had the best fishing equipment money could buy,’’ said Selcke, who himself was wounded in the Vietnam War and was treated by Becker at the VA hospital in 1969. They became close friends.
“He had 30 days off a year at the VA, and he would go two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall to Lake of the Woods to fish muskies, bass and everything,’’ Selcke said. “He also fished a lot at Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls.’’
Paul Hartman, 43, of Blaine, another friend, said he tried to encourage Becker to splurge a little and hire muskie-fishing guides to take him on some of his favorite waters.
“He looked at spending money on guides as wasteful,’’ said Hartman, who runs the yearly Minnesota Muskie Expo. Becker drove a modest sedan, “and his boat was a 15-footer, nothing fancy.’’
Ahead of his time
Becker never married, though he and Helen Ness of Minneapolis were close companions for years. And she was an accomplished angler herself.
When Muskies Inc. was being founded, Becker argued that the group should include women and children, because both were essential to the future of fishing, he thought.
And when he set up his foundation, he wanted some of the proceeds to go to kids programs, which it does.
Becker also helped launch the catch-and-release philosophy, now commonplace, especially among muskie anglers.
“Back then, it was a tough sales pitch,’’ Hartman said. “He firmly believed if you keep putting them back, there’d be more to chase when you returned.’’
With the permission of the Wisconsin DNR, he tagged and released muskies he caught in Wisconsin, which showed catch-and-release worked.
“He tagged more than 1,000 muskies over 30 years,’’ Selcke said.
A lasting legacy
Becker made it clear to Selcke how he wanted his millions to be used.
The Twin Cities chapter of Muskies Inc. gets 75 percent — more than $100,000 this year — and a chunk of that is redistributed as grants to muskie groups and fisheries agencies around the nation and in Canada. The 150-member Chippewa Rod and Gun club gets 25 percent, and some of that, too, is redistributed to other groups.
“We’ve put over 700 fish cribs into Lake Wissota, for fish habitat,’’ said Tim Hebert, treasurer of the club. “It’s a man-made flowage with not a lot of natural structure. We stock trout in local creeks and release pheasants on public hunting grounds.’’
And the club recently held a Big Brothers-Big Sisters trout-fishing event.
Among the money Muskies Inc. distributed in Minnesota this year: $4,000 to acquire shoreline habitat on Leech Lake, $5,700 for muskie stocking on Lake Minnetonka, $5,000 for muskie stocking in White Bear Lake, $5,000 to assess muskie populations in the Mississippi River near Brainerd, and $2,000 for youth programs in St. Cloud.
Other grants are going to programs in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ontario.
“Mr. Becker left a huge legacy for muskie fishing, not only here but nationally and in Canada,’’ said Tom Keith, president of the Twin Cities Muskies Inc. chapter. “He lived such a varied life, with amazing experiences. His influence will last into the future.’’
Becker’s name is on an 81-acre state wildlife management area near Olivia, land he inherited from his uncle, Fred Roeck, and donated to the state.
But otherwise, except for a few Muskies Inc. members, his philanthropy is virtually unknown.
“He really didn’t want any [fame] for himself,’’ Selcke said. “It’s just the way he was.’’