Hugh Becker: Leaving a lasting legacy for muskies

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2013 - 2:51 AM

In Hugh Becker’s life, fishing provided a highlight. In his death, his estate provides for the fish he held so dear.

Hugh Becker hefted a 35-pound muskie he caught and released on a cold November day in 2000, likely on a Minnesota lake. Becker died in 2007 at age 89. The earnings from his $3 million estate go to Muskies Inc. and a Wisconsin rod and gun club.

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.

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  • Hugh Becker and his longtime companion, Helen Ness, with a stringer of fish they caught in 1987.

  • Hugh Becker of Minneapolis served in the Marine Corps in World War II, and later worked as a physical therapist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Minneapolis.

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