REMEMBERING EUGENE BECKER
by Jerry Pollack, August, 2006 and July, 2016
I met Gene in April 1954 on the troop ship that carried us, along with a few other string players, to Bremerhaven on our way to Stuttgart and the 7th ASO. He was then already an accomplished violist, having been a member of the Krasner quartet in Syracuse. On the ship, he organized a group that provided musical entertainment on the 10-day voyage and took the men's minds off the fact that, early on, someone had mixed together the ship's entire supply of sugar and salt. Gene was a very serious person as well as musician. He and Stanley Plummer, our legendary concertmaster at the time, gave memorable performances of Mozart's Symphony Concertante. Some months after our arrival, Gene's wife, Rae, joined him and they moved off base.
Our period together in 1954 formed the basis of a lifelong friendship. And after our discharge from active service, during the McCarthy red-baiting period, Gene asked me to help him defend himself against a bizarre effort by the Army to portray him as a subversive and deny him an honorable discharge. (As draftees, we were all required to serve in the inactive reserve for six years after our active service, and only then were we finally discharged.) The Army alleged that Gene had attended some meetings of one or several subversive organizations before his entry into the service and that this alleged attendance was proof that he was, himself, a subversive. They made no allegations concerning his conduct, which was exemplary, while he was in the service. Their strange logic was that, if a person did something subversive even before induction into the military, he thereby limited his usefulness to the country and therefore, regardless of how meritorious his actual service, he deserved punishment. Well, Gene was called before a military tribunal on Governors Island in New York, and he asked me to appear as a character witness. I could testify, very truthfully, that of course I couldn't comment on what meetings Gene may have attended before I met him, but I could affirm that I doubted very much that he had any communist leanings. I never knew him to talk about politics with anyone, and certainly not with me. If he was a leftist, this was certainly not apparent, even upon close association. At the time, I was economist for a respected industrial concern in Philadelphia, and I hope that this credential lent weight to my very positive character reference. Anyway, I am happy to report that Gene won out. And as for subversive associations, who knows, the Army might have given me a hard time if they knew that I had attended a few Paul Robeson concerts.
After leaving our orchestra, Gene performed in the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra for several years, before learning of an opportunity to audition for the viola section of the N. Y. Philharmonic. At the time, the family income was augmented by Rae, who worked as a secretary. Gene told me that, when Rae left in the morning for her 8-hour workday, he got out his viola and likewise practiced for 8 hours. It was, he said, the right thing to do. And, as we know, he succeeded in the audition, and joined the Philharmonic in 1957. He remained there for 32 years and became Assistant Principal Violist. I do recall him telling me during this period that he thought the musicians of the Philharmonic were underpaid and that the board of managers should raise more money so that this situation could be remedied. This was about as far left a view as I ever heard from his lips. Had his military tribunal known that he would one day express such a sentiment, who knows what the outcome might have been? For a number of seasons after leaving the Philharmonic, he organized chamber music concerts at Lehman College, which I attended. He performed in these concerts, along with members of the Aeolian Players, whose founding father and first violinist was Lew Kaplan, another friend from the 7th ASO. He also taught at both Juilliard and the Mannes College. Shortly before his death, I was privileged to observe one of his lessons with an accomplished student, and I was impressed with his passion for excellence.
Three years or so ago, Gene had a stroke that affected his right side and speech. With therapy, he made a strong recovery, but it was not sufficient for him to resume concertising. Then he was diagnosed with cancer. Tragically, this discovery came late, after the cancer had spread. Gene fought back with all his strength and underwent repeated chemotherapy treatments. Alas, the illness was stronger than the therapy. He died in June 2006.