Bill Becker, lawyer Oprah Winfrey credited with helping build Harpo Studios empire, dead at 78 – About Your Online Magazine


Bill Becker’s career as a labor lawyer began representing coal mines and grocery stores and culminated in helping Oprah Winfrey create a media empire.

He became Winfrey’s trusted general counsel, leading a legal team of 25 employees. He handled labor issues ranging from hiring to termination, as well as negotiating union contracts for Harpo Studios in Winfrey.

“Bill Becker started working with me in the early days of Harpo and was a critical member of the team,” said Winfrey, “serving as general counsel and consultant on all legal issues.”

Becker, 78, died on February 11 in Chicago. He had Parkinson’s disease and suffered a stroke in October, according to his daughter.

Oprah Winfrey with an arm around Bill Becker, who is beside her in the front row, in the center, in this photo of the legal team at Harpo Studios.

Oprah Winfrey with an arm around Bill Becker, who is beside her in the front row, in the center, in this photo of the legal team at Harpo Studios.
George Burns / Harpo Inc.

In addition to labor and real estate issues, he oversaw a variety of entertainment issues. Keeping an eye on Federal Communications Commission regulations, for example, he warned producers if he thought the program was at risk of receiving dubious complaints or misleading guests. It was also his department that made sure that Winfrey was allowed to listen to all the music heard at his show and that the dressing rooms were equipped with the food and drinks specified in some artists’ contracts.

He helped mobilize a legal team to investigate allegations of sexual abuse at school for girls that Winfrey founded in South Africa.

Organized and meticulous, Becker also helped Winfrey choose his private plane, according to his daughter Cathy. And when The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2009, he helped plan a farewell cruise in the Mediterranean with all expenses paid for 1,800 of his employees, their families and friends.

He made a memorable appearance on your show 20 years ago, when Winfrey was taking orders at Rock N Roll McDonald’s. Coincidentally, he entered the drive-through at that moment and could be heard complaining involuntarily to his boss: “Yes, ma’am, I must say that this is the slowest service I’ve ever had here.”

Winfrey calls that moment “one of my favorite Bill memories of all time”.

“I agreed to do a story about working at McDonald’s,” she said. “And while I was there, fumbling with takeout orders, Bill stops and is honking his horn and complaining about the slow service.

“‘ Sorry, sir, it’s my first day, ’” I said. I recognized his voice through the order’s speaker. When he stopped to take his order, he was shocked to see me at the food delivery window handing him his Big Mac. He sent me an apologizing email shortly after and asked if there was anything he could do to compensate me. . We ended up putting him behind the counter at McDonald’s, taking orders, and he was a good sportsman. “

Working for Winfrey was “exciting in a new way every day,” Becker once told law.com. “Because she is a creative butterfly, we never know where she will land.”

He was born in Astoria, Queens. Her mother, Catherine, was a New Yorker from an Italian-American family. Her father, William Ludwig Becker, was from the city of Hochst, now part of Frankfurt, Germany. When Becker was a child, his family moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where his father – who served in the Army Corps of Engineers – worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project.

The family later moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, where Mr. Becker was the class speaker at Notre Dame High School. He attended Haverford College. For a time, his father worked in Germany as a consultant to a watch company. Young Bill got a summer job at the company, where he “worked at a German brewery and had to use lederhosen, ” your daughter said.

He went to law school at Washington University, where he met Maureen DeBlois, who was studying for his master’s degree in chemistry. Later, she worked for Monsanto. They were married for about 40 years, until his death in 2007.

Bill Becker at a 2015 meeting of his class at Haverford College.

Bill Becker at a 2015 meeting of his class at Haverford College.
Griffith Smith

They settled in Glen Ellyn after he was hired by the law firm Laner Muchin. He represented coal mines, Chicago grocery stores, including Heinemann’s Bakeries and Stop & Shop and also WTTW-TV and WFMT-FM.

“He could do anything. He was extraordinarily ethical, ”said his former legal partner Arthur Muchin.

He said that Winfrey hired his company in the late 1980s for its expertise in manpower and Becker’s experience with broadcasting customers.

Mr. Becker said law.com he was not very familiar with Winfrey when they first met – but he remembered that she liked his green and orange tie. Several years later, when she invited him to be her internal general counsel, he retired from Laner Muchin and moved to Harpo.

“It is difficult to separate success from Bill’s program,” said lawyer Elizabeth Yore, who said she and other members of Harpo’s legal department admired her kindness and sense of humor. “He was the best boss I ever had.”

As a young man, he did not like having to wear his uncle’s suits. As soon as he started making money, he bought some nice suits and ties at Mark Shale.

Bill Becker and Lauralea Suess, his second wife.

Bill Becker and Lauralea Suess, his second wife.
George Burns Photograph

He met Lauralea Suess, a teacher who would become his second wife, when he responded to her ad in the Chicago Reader.

“He sent a long and beautiful article about the loss of his wife that was very sincere,” she said. “It was, like, ‘I lost the woman I loved; I was married to her for 40 years. I’m just looking for company. ‘It wasn’t’ I like walking on the beach ”

After several months of dating, they went out to dinner at North Pond Cafe in Lincoln Park. She was examining the menu when he said that she was missing the most important line. He had “Lauralea, will you marry me?” printed on the top.

“He knelt in front of everyone at the restaurant,” she said, “and said, ‘Do you want to marry me? ’”

They were married in 2009 and lived in the center of a condominium overlooking Millennium Park. They enjoyed theater, dining at the Acanto restaurant and trips, including winter trips to Puerto Vallarta and a safari in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, where they saw rhinos, elephants, giraffes and wildebeests.

A Zoom memorial was planned for Saturday. Mr. Becker also left his brothers Robert and Christopher and a granddaughter.

Paula Fonseca