Sensational Seniors – April 2017
Jacksonville Mayor Paul Becker’s transition from New York City to our small village is a story of finding one’s place in the world and is replete with the usual ups and downs, triumphs, defeats, sadness and elation. Paul was born in 1929 on the upper West Side of New York City. His mother was of Irish/Swiss descent while his father was an immigrant from Turkey. Mayor Becker laughs when considering his parents union, “That these two should have even met, let alone get married puzzles me to this day, and the result of their marriage was that they were ostracized by both of their families.”
The West Side neighborhood that Paul grew up in the 1930s was populated by a middle-income mix of Jewish small entrepreneurs on one side and a large Irish population on the other. Paul remembers there was some gang activity during his youth but then early on he “learned how to steer clear of trouble and walk away from it.” Paul’s father was a barber and was able to provide for his family even in the difficult depression years. It was during these early years on the West Side that what became a life-long passion came about. The main form of entertainment during this time was going to the movies. In those days, movie theaters promoted upcoming films by placing posters in businesses, especially barber shops. His father’s barbershop always displayed one so, in return, his dad received weekly movie passes, allowing Paul to attend at least two movies a week, resulting in him becoming a movie buff.
Unlike many who remember our school days with fondness, Paul says he was never comfortable in school. “Part of this I believe was because I was an only child and, since my parents were alienated from their families, I did not have a lot of interaction with other kids.” He remembers attending PS #9, the local elementary school and from there the Bronx Side School of Science, considered to be the most prestigious high school in New York City at the time. While a good student, high school didn’t interest him much and, even though his mother dreamed of him being an engineer, he had no interest in that profession. He finished high school in three and a half years, graduating at age 16, and from there went on to Syracuse University where he was surrounded by much older students, many utilizing the G.I. Bill. His uncomfortable school days continued. “I was a fish out of water. Because I was so young I had no social life and basically floundered.” After a year at Syracuse, he transitioned to New York University and received straight A’s but still found no excitement in school, so he enlisted in the army.
After his army stint, he started taking any number of many post-WWII jobs. He was a soda jerk, delivery truck worker and picked up office work jobs, as well. Then he landed a job with Chase Bank in the tabulation department, which launched his career. In December 1954, he took his tabulation experience to Southern California for a job with Southern California Gas Company. From here he moved on to Tidewater Oil Company at a time in the late 1950’s when computers were just arriving on the scene. At Tidewater, he took an aptitude test which he said proved he was “truly blessed because I finished #2 in computer proficiency and went on to become a computer programmer, even before the occupation was identified.” Paul worked with several different companies during the remaining years of his computer technology career, finishing with Southwest Administrative Corporation, a privately-owned medical billing company. He spent 20 years with Southwest, retiring as a partner.
Paul’s long-time love of the movies had not wavered during the years and, while at Southwest, he came up with the idea of starting a radio show on the local KCSN radio station that would focus on nostalgic movies. The radio show never happened, but he started spending his daily lunchtime in the Hollywood archives, researching old musicals. Remembering this time, he says, “I don’t know how I got into this tremendous library of files and how I pretty much had Carte Blanc to them, but I did and it was wonderful. I became especially intrigued with any files pertaining to the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musicals. One day the archives manager, knowing of my interests, asked if I would like to go with him to see Ginger Rogers as he had some business to do with her.” This casual introduction and meeting with Ginger Rogers turned into a very close and long-term friendship that Mayor Becker relishes to this day. Paul remembers that he was single at this time and a pattern developed where he and Ginger had dinner together at least once a week. When Ginger was being honored with a lifetime achievement award, she asked Paul to put together a montage of film clips from her career, which he did, and it was so well received that George Montgomery asked him to do one for him. From then on, he was in high demand.
When Ginger Rogers moved to her ranch on the Rogue River in 1978, Paul started visiting her on a regular basis. He said he once mentioned to her that he had spent more time with her than any of her five husbands. He eventually became the executor of her estate and was with her until the end.
Paul moved to the Rogue Valley in 1993 because, in his many visits to Ginger Rogers, he “didn’t see anything to not like about the Rogue Valley.” He first lived in Shady Cove, and it was during this time he met his third wife, Sharon, which he says is “one of the greatest blessings of my life.” They married in 2004 and on Sharon’s urging, moved to Jacksonville and began the third phase of Paul’s busy life.
His first involvement with the political life of Jacksonville was running for City Council, mainly because “I thought the fire department surcharge was the worst idea I’d ever heard of.” Now that he has a number of years of city government behind him and the surcharge is in place, he can live with it and sees its value. He became mayor when the then-mayor resigned mid-term and Paul, being the President of the City Council, filled in for the remaining two years of the mayor’s term. He then ran for mayor in 2012 and was elected as was the case in 2016.
When asked why he’s devoting so much time to the City of Jacksonville at his age, he expresses, “I can’t just sit around. I tried that after moving to Southern Oregon, and it did not work. Plus, I fell in love with Jacksonville and decided that anything I could do to help preserve the quality of life here was worth it.”
Paul and Sharon’s move to Jacksonville did not quell his long love for the movies and his well-received monthly Movie Night at Old City Hall is proof positive, having become a favorite of many. Paul loves spending time researching the making of the movies and their stars, giving Jacksonville its own American Movie Classic Theater. Just a week after the interview for this article, it was announced that the Randall Theatre had entered into an agreement with the Jacksonville Calvary Church to bring live theatre back to Jacksonville. It should come as no surprise that it was Mayor Becker who brokered this great addition to our city.
When asked what he was most proud of, Paul replied that meeting Ginger Rogers and becoming her friend and meeting and marrying Sharon were two things he was most proud of. As far as the City of Jacksonville, he is especially proud of leading the preservation and restoration efforts of the Courthouse conversion into New City Hall, thus assuring its Jacksonville presence for decades to come.
Paul Becker is one more Jacksonville citizen that in his senior years continues to give much more than he takes. Jacksonville is fortunate to have him with us.