By Jordan Leibowitz
I grew up looking at several pictures of my great uncle Jerome Becker mounted on a living room wall; photos of him with President Ronald Reagan. I never gave them much thought, other than, “It is pretty cool that my uncle worked in the White House.” As I grew older, I became more curious about my uncle’s career and decided to do some research.
Becker, 76, was born in Richmond. He majored in political science at the University of Richmond while minoring in journalism and speech. Uncle Jerry, as we call him, has had an illustrious career in journalism and public service. He had jobs for various newspapers, including Hopewell News, USA Today, and the The Cincinnati Enquirer. He aspired to be a writer from a young age as he began his career as a copyboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Becker also held government positions in two presidential administrations, working in President Reagan’s administration as the Associate Director of Public Affairs, as well as in President George H.W. Bush’s administration as both the Deputy Director of Speech for the Secretary of Health and in the Office of Thrift Supervision. Becker describes his career: “I was a writer who helped leaders communicate.”
In an interview, Becker said, “I wanted to work in journalism. I wanted to be a newspaper man, and I was.” As a copyboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “more than forty years ago”, Becker helped moved papers from typewriters to various editors while helping take care of wire machines from the Associated Press. He then got a job as sports editor for the Hopewell News in 1964. He was responsible for the entire sports page and would write, edit, and find stories. After earning his Phd in political science from American University, Becker spent ten years at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where he wrote editorials and edited the Op-Ed page. Becker chose his career path “because [he] was always very interested in government and political science, focused on study of government.” Frequent job changes proved to be a challenge to Becker’s career. He described networking as an important part of his career because “You meet people, you get to know them, get them to know you and they help you move to your next job, and you help them as well.”
After his tenure with The Cincinnati Enquirer, Becker worked for USA Today, a national newspaper, as an editor and opinion writer for two years. He reflected on his work there by saying “I wrote editorials, I discussed what position the paper should be with my colleges… I did some interviews, and sometimes I was the make-up editor, which meant I went down to what we call the composing room and made sure everything gets placed where it is supposed to on the page.” He did this until he was hired to work in Reagan’s administration.
Becker worked for Reagan as the Associate Director of Public Affairs for three years. He helped write and edit many speeches and articles that were used by the president and others within the Executive Branch. Becker regards working for President Reagan as his favorite job because “It was a lot of status, a lot of work, and you felt it was all important.” He was a part of the Reagan administration during the final three years of Reagan’s term (1985-1989) in the Eisenhower building, just west of the White House. During Becker’s tenure with President G.H.W. Bush, he was the Deputy of Speech Writing for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, primarily under Dr. Louis Sullivan, M.D., and was later hired at the Office of Thrift Supervision, which dealt with savings and loan banks.
Becker is most grateful for “The opportunity to be of service [and] the opportunity to tell their story … I was a ghost writer. I was telling their story, whether it was a President, a cabinet officer, or a business leader.” He says that he “did more things that were used by the President when I was with Reagan.” However, Becker does feel that he made an impact in the first Bush administration, because he was given the opportunity to write and edit for President Bush. He describes the two Presidents as being “very different.” As a speechwriter for Dr. Sullivan during the Bush administration, Becker wrote on “specific topics relating to health, including anti-smoking and anti-drug abuse.”
Becker spent the latter part of his career working for trade associations, from the end of the G.H.W. Bush administration in 1992 until his retirement in 2014. Becker says that “I learned that I was meant to be a writer.” Becker reflected on his career by saying that today, “It would have been more difficult to work for a newspaper, but eventually I might have been able to find jobs in trade associations, and if I had enough contacts when my party was in power, I might have been able to find political jobs in government.” Becker describes the qualities of a writer as, “Curiosity, passion, ideas, inspiration, a knowledge of the English language, and a knowledge of the audience he or she wants to meet.”
Today, Becker lives in Richmond and enjoys spending time with his friends and family. My mother, Middle School Latin teacher Amy Leibowitz (‘88), describes her uncle by saying that “Even at the busiest points of his career, he still took the time to advise me on job choices and future plans. His work experience continue to inspire me.” Family gatherings are often highlighted by his witty comments and love of ketchup. He reads historical biographies and collects antique maps of Virginia. When I interviewed him, he referenced books by Jon Meacham. His eyes lit up as he described Meacham’s book about President Andrew Jackson, American Lion. He also enjoys following the Redskins’ struggles.
Despite all of his career accomplishments, Uncle Jerry always displays an interest in teaching me about finance, politics, and life. The time I spend with my uncle is always memorable because of his passion for ensuring that I go into the world with extensive knowledge.
Featured image courtesy of user AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons.