Crosslake senior - and his tomatoes - thrive on sunshine
Adolph “Bill” Becker can’t wait to get his hands dirty again.
With a light snow falling through the window behind him on an April afternoon, Becker enthused about tomatoes and the sunshine. A lifelong gardener and former greenhouse proprietor, the 92-year-old looks forward to the inevitable arrival of spring weather each year, the time when he can begin nurturing tiny vegetable sprouts toward their eventual fruitful harvest.
One of the newest residents at the Golden Horizons assisted living facility in Crosslake, Becker recalls a time when he and his brother ran a successful tomato-growing operation in Indianapolis, back when the city boasted nearly 90 greenhouse growers and a bustling commission house where area grocers bought their produce.
“It got to being pretty big,” he said. “We delivered to Detroit, Chicago, even down to Atlanta.”
It was in late July every year, in the weeks between tomato crops, that Becker, his wife, Jenny, their two daughters and Jenny’s parents would escape the city and make their way up to a cabin on Ross Lake near Emily. Becker’s in-laws purchased the property in 1952 when they saw an advertisement in the paper — 10 acres of land and five buildings for $1,700 — and it jumpstarted his family’s love affair with the lakes area.
Becker was born in Wenden, Germany, in 1921, and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. While his mother worked as a maid on a goat farm on one side of Indianapolis and his father established the greenhouse business he would eventually take over on the other side, Becker lived with an aunt and uncle. He loved to ride his bicycle and learned to garden early on, eventually developing an interest for roller skating. He skated all the time; learning the skate dance, he could waltz on wheels.
During World War II, his first name, Adolph. became associated with a certain infamous man with the same name. Although Becker tried to differentiate himself by pointing out that his name ended with a “ph” instead of an “f,” his roller rink friends wished to call him something else.
“My middle name is William, so I told them they could call me ‘Bill,’” he said. “Everybody’s been calling me that ever since.”
He and his wife met at the roller rink in 1945 and married a year and a half later. Their first daughter, Pamela, came along in 1947 and their second daughter, Debbie, was born in 1952.
In 1945, Becker and his brother, Freddie, took over their father’s greenhouses, which they ran together for 36 years until Freddie’s sudden death from an aneurysm in 1981. Over the course of their business ownership, the brothers grew the number of greenhouses from two to 10.
It’s been 33 years since he closed the doors, but parts of Becker’s greenhouses have a new life on Ross Lake; he repurposed the lumber from the buildings into a deck on the much larger home that he, his daughter Debbie and her husband moved into a few years ago.
His wife, Jenny, had a stroke in 2004, which left her paralyzed on her left side and forced her to move into a nursing home, where she lived for five years before she died in 2009. When soon after a heart doctor in Indianapolis told Becker he might have to move into assisted living, Debbie offered for him to move up to Minnesota with them.
Becker came to Golden Horizons two months ago, when Debbie and her husband moved to Alabama to be with their daughter, who just gave birth to her third child and his ninth great-grandchild. He enjoys everything about his new home so far: the food, the camaraderie with other residents and the staff, the church services and the weekly happy hour, where his drink of choice is a beer.
“It doesn’t make a difference to me (what kind), a beer is a beer,” he said.
Being German, he said, Becker’s always loved beer, and once ran the beer wagon at the Oktoberfest gathering at German Park in Indianapolis. He still has a clipping from a newspaper with a photo of him pouring a beer from one of the 20 taps on the truck at the festival.
He’s looking forward to the snow melting, so he can put up a bird feeder and a thermometer that’s large enough for him to read outside his window. The temperature and weather have always been important to him.
“We lived with Mother Nature all our lives, being in the tomato business,” he said. “We knew when the storms were coming and were always looking for the sun.”
Becker’s gentle heart and wry smile spread warmth to everyone who has the chance to meet him. His near-century on Earth, his trials of love and loss, war and peace — nothing has quite dimmed the sparkle in his eyes.
His hallowed advice to beginning gardeners?
“Nothing can grow without sunshine,” he said.
Chelsey Perkins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her at facebook.com/PEJChelsey and on Twitter @PEJ_Chelsey.