MILWAUKEE – Whether it entailed religion or politics, social justice was always at the heart of Dismas Becker’s work.
The former Carmelite priest and state Assembly speaker died Sept. 19 of cancer. He was 74. Becker was remembered by hundreds of family and friends at a visitation and memorial Mass Oct. 2 at his longtime parish, St. Michael, on Milwaukee’s north side.
Becker, a Milwaukee native, entered the priesthood in 1964 as a member of the Discalced Carmelite Order. He tackled the civil rights issue head-on, oftentimes addressing those issues in his sermons.
Becker left the priesthood after eight years with his sights set on a political career. In 1977, he was elected to the state Assembly and served in that role through the late 1980s. He eventually became a professional lobbyist.
Bob Graf, a longtime friend of Becker’s, said the legislator’s goal in life – to fight for some of the most underserved members of society – remained at the forefront throughout his varied and unorthodox career.
“He held firm to his faith, right up to the end; he was very dependent on God,” Graf said. “He gave his life to everybody. He gave all he had.”
Perhaps one of Becker’s most dramatic moments in the priesthood occurred in 1969. Accompanied by longtime friend and fellow civil rights advocate Fr. James Groppi, Becker and a host of other people campaigning for civil rights protested at the State Capitol and demanded school reform and welfare rights.
Groppi was eventually arrested during the protest; when Becker took the lead during a sit-in on the Capitol lawn, he was beaten by a police officer.
“He had a great impact,” Graf said. “He was always a very calm, peaceful and sensitive person. He was very gentle and kind.”
While Graf worked with Becker on and off, more recently the two gathered with other members of a Tuesday morning prayer group.
In recent weeks, Becker’s health began to rapidly decline from his illness. Graf met with Becker the Tuesday prior to his death – for one last prayer group. Despite being in great pain, in a bed-ridden state and struggling to speak, Graf said Becker’s gentle, Christ-filled spirit was ever present.
“He held my hand for a bit, and was even smiling; it meant a lot,” said Graf.
Graf said people from all walks of life and many diverse backgrounds paid their last respects at the funeral as a fitting tribute to Becker’s influence and legacy in the Milwaukee area.
“He lived in the same neighborhood the past 30 or 40 years,” Graf said. “He was a simple person who didn’t have a fancy life. But his advocacy for the poor left an impression.”
Becker is survived by his wife, E. Fay Anderson; a son, Robert Becker; four stepchildren, Earl, Elizabeth and Lorraine Anderson and Penelope Buckingham; grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Jo Gould.