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Hawkeye All-American Fred Becker died in WWI

[ 0 ] November 10, 2012 |

More than four years later, Mike Chapman still isn’t sure why he stopped his car on that warm summer night in 2008.

The author and former newspaper man had driven by his alma mater Waterloo East High School countless times without giving any thought to stopping.

Nothing was taking place on the school grounds that would’ve caught Chapman’s attention, but he still felt compelled to stop.

It was as if something beyond his control pulled him out of his car and led him to a plaque near the front entrance of the school. The plaque was a tribute to two former Waterloo East graduates who lost their lives while serving in the military.

One of the names on the plaque was Fred Becker, class of 1914.

The name was familiar to Chapman because it’s the same name as the University of Iowa’s first all-America football player. Chapman wondered if it was the same person.

He began researching Becker and discovered that Iowa’s first all-America football player was a war hero who graduated from Waterloo East nearly a century ago. Becker earned all-America honors as a lineman at Iowa in 1916, his only season on the team.

Chapman is proud that he graduated from the same high school as Becker, albeit nearly a half century apart. He puts Becker in a special group with Nile Kinnick and Duke Slater as former University of Iowa student-athletes who achieved legendary status.

Kinnick also died while serving in the military, although, unlike Becker, Kinnick didn’t die in action. He was killed when his plane crashed off the coast of Venezuela in the Gulf of Paria during a training flight on June 2, 1943.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with comparing them because neither man suffers from the comparison,” Chapman said of Becker and Kinnick.

Becker was only 22 when he was killed July 18, 1918. He was two years younger than Kinnick at the time of Kinnick’s death. Becker also was less than a year removed from being a celebrated student-athlete at the University of Iowa.

He volunteered for the military and took tremendous pride in defending his country against German aggression.

“Eight months earlier, he’s walking the campus of the University of Iowa, the most popular kid in school, and now he’s in France fighting for his life on the western front,” Chapman said. “So many people die at such a young age, it’s just incredible.

“And then the others live to 100 and don’t accomplish a dang thing. But I was so taken with Fred Becker’s story when I started to do the research.”

Chapman admires the courage and determination that Becker showed under horrible circumstances. World War I was brutal in so many ways as both sides improved their ways of killing.

Becker’s courage was evident in a letter he wrote to his parents June 23, 1918, less than a month before he was killed. He was injured and was eager to get back on the battlefield.

“Everyone wants to get into action, and all feel slighted when they’re not engaged in combat when there is important work to be done,” Becker said in the letter.

Becker was killed when his platoon was pinned down during the battle of Chateau-Thierry in France. Becker had just taken out a German machine gun nest, according to Chapman’s research, when he was killed.

Becker was credited by the Marines with saving the lives of the men he commanded. He also received the American Distinguished Service Cross, the Belgian War Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

Becker’s remains were brought back to New Jersey after the war in 1921 and then shipped by train to Waterloo. More than 2,000 people attended the May 14, 1921, funeral with the crowd reportedly overflowing into the street. The crowd more than doubled at the cemetery, according to reports, with an estimated 5,000 people on hand to pay their respects.

“It was the largest crowd ever assembled in Waterloo at that time,” Chapman said.

Chapman was surprised that he was unaware of Becker’s connection after he’d dedicated much of his life to covering sports in Iowa. Chapman founded the Voice of the Hawkeyes magazine, served as assistant sports editor at the Press-Citizen from 1969 to 1970, served as sports editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette from 1978 to 1984 and created the International Wrestling Institute and Museum, which now is called the Dan Gable International Institute and Wrestling Museum.

In fact, Chapman was in Waterloo that night in 2008 because he was in the process of moving the wrestling museum that he created from Newton to Waterloo. He was feeling nostalgic and decided to drive by his alma mater.

Getting out of the car that night changed the lives of two people, even though one of the lives ended more than 90 years earlier on a battlefield in France. Becker and veterans who have served the United States will be honored Sunday on Veterans Day.

Chapman has since become a spokesman for Becker’s legacy. Chapman wrote a book titled “Triumph and Tragedy,” which chronicles the lives of four iconic student-athletes from the state of Iowa, including Becker.

Chapman accepted on Becker’s behalf when Becker was inducted into the University of Iowa Hall of Fame in 2009 because no surviving relatives could be located.

Chapman also has been a guest speaker numerous times at schools and other functions with Becker as his topic of conversation.

Chapman has been fascinated with Becker’s life story, but also with how they finally crossed paths in the night. Chapman still isn’t sure why after getting out of his car he walked up the steps that are located at the front of the school and in place where students didn’t typically gain entrance to Waterloo East.

“I don’t know what made me get out of the car and go see that (plaque), but something did,” said Chapman, who lives in Newton. “And I like to think that it was Fred Becker’s spirit.”

Chapman, 69, knows that some might consider his explanation a bit dramatic, but it’s the only way he can explain it.

“Well, I’m a Christian, and I think things happen for a reason,” Chapman said. “It’s almost like God sent me up there.

“It really is because I had never gotten out of the car and walked up those steps before.”

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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