Thursday, December 11, 2014

In Memoriam: Merritt C. Becker, Namesake of UNO Transportation Institute

Model railroad aficionado gave more than $1 million to establish the esteemed applied research center

The namesake of the University of New Orleans' esteemed transportation research center has died.

Merritt Charles Becker Jr, died peacefully on Sunday, Nov. 14. He was 93.

"Mr. Becker was a gentle and extraordinary person that exemplified being a part of the Greatest Generation," said Dr. John L. Renne, director of the Merritt C. Becker Jr. Transportation Institute at UNO. "Becker served our nation by working on the rail lines in Europe during WWII, which was critical to supplying our troops to enable our victory. After he returned to New Orleans, he spent decades becoming one of the most prolific model railroad builders in the United States."

Becker, who more than a decade ago contributed approximately one million dollars to the University to establish a transportation institute, loved trains, faculty said. At his home in Lake Terrace, he housed one of the nation's largest collections of model trains, many of which he built by hand. He willed the collection to UNO, where plans to establish a museum are underway.

The Merritt C. Becker, Jr. University of New Orleans Transportation Institute has long been established in his honor, Renne said. The applied research center focuses on the role of transportation in creating a sustainable, livable and resilient future. "Much of the work we do," Renne said, "focuses on rail transportation, a passion of Mr. Becker."

UNOTI staff are also recognized around the world for their expertise in transportation policy; maritime and port planning; evacuation planning for carless and vulnerable populations; transit and streetcars; bicycle and pedestrian planning and safety; and transit-oriented development.

The applied research center continues to be integral in the post-Katrina recovery of New Orleans, and vital to the overall sustainability and economic competitiveness of the nation, Renne said.

After serving in Europe during World War II, Becker used the GI Bill to attend Pharmacy School at Loyola University, where he received his first doctorate in just five years. The second doctorate was an honorary degree bestowed by UNO.

Becker's lifelong hobby of model boat and train building influenced every aspect of his life, family members said in an obituary. At 17, he built his first model ships while working as an electrician alongside his father at the Higgins Boat Company in New Orleans, where eventually he became an expediter for steamships.

At 19, Becker was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he trained to work on the military railroad that moved allied supplies across Europe. Serving under Army General George S. Patton, he earned the rank of Sergeant and received three medals, all battle stars: The Invasion of Utah beach, The Battle of the Bulge and The Battle of Berlin.

Becker lived and worked in New Orleans all his life and following his first job at Smithy's Pharmacy on St. Charles Avenue, he served as a pharmaceutical representative for Abbott Laboratories.

Upon early retirement, Becker taught chemistry and physics at Stuart Hall Preparatory School, travelling often with his beloved sister, Betty, to Europe, which helped to inform elaborate settings for his model trains and railroads, which ran throughout his Lake Terrace home and backyard.

Becker also had an impressive model boat collection, parts of which are now on display at the Port of New Orleans.

Becker, a lifelong member of the National Model Railroad Association and the Steam Train Association, worked as a consultant and advisor to several deans at UNO for different projects. In 2013, he participated in filming for a small documentary to be produced by the University's Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing.

In the short film, Becker narrates the illustrious history of the American railroad, as one of his prized trains chugs around a large track before him.