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Bill Becker, lawyer Oprah credited with helping build Harpo Studios empire, dead at 78

He made a memorable appearance on her show. Winfrey was working the Rock N Roll McDonald’s drive-thru. He complained unwittingly to his boss about her slow service.

Bill Becker and his wife Maureen (far right) during a trip to Hawaii with Oprah Winfrey.
Bill Becker and his wife Maureen (far right) during a trip to Hawaii with Oprah Winfrey.
George Burns / Harpo Inc.

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

He rose to become Winfrey’s trusted general counsel, heading a legal team of 25 employees. He handled employment matters ranging from hiring to severance as well as negotiating union contracts for Winfrey’s Harpo Studios.

“Bill Becker began working with me in the early days of Harpo and was a critical member of the team,” Winfrey said, “serving as general counsel and adviser regarding all things legal.”

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

Oprah Winfrey with an arm draped around Bill Becker, who stands next to her in the front row, center, in this photo of the legal team at Harpo Studios.
Oprah Winfrey with an arm draped around Bill Becker, who stands next to her in the front row, 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 matters. With an eye toward Federal Communications Commission regulations, for instance, he’d warn producers away if he thought the show was at risk of dubious claims or deceptive guests. It also was his department that made sure Winfrey had clearance for all of the music heard on her show and that dressing rooms were furnished with the food and drinks specified in some entertainers’ contracts.

He helped with the mobilization of a legal team to investigate allegations of sex abuse at the girls’ school Winfrey founded in South Africa.

Organized and meticulous, Mr. Becker also helped Winfrey choose her private plane, according to his daughter Cathy. And as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” wound down in 2009, he helped plan an all-expenses-paid Mediterranean farewell cruise for 1,800 of her employees, their families and friends.

He made a memorable appearance on her show 20 years ago when Winfrey was taking orders at the Rock N Roll McDonald’s. Coincidentally, he rolled up in the drive-thru just then and could be heard complaining unwittingly to his boss, “Yes, ma’am, I gotta tell you this is the slowest service I’ve ever had here.”

Oprah Winfrey working the drive-thru at the Rock N Roll McDonald’s and dealing with a customer complaining about the terrible service — her show’s lawyer Bill Becker, who didn’t know she was the one taking drive-thru orders.
Oprah Winfrey working the drive-thru at the Rock N Roll McDonald’s and dealing with a customer complaining about the terrible service — her show’s lawyer Bill Becker, who didn’t know she was the one taking drive-thru orders.
YouTube

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

“I had agreed to do a story on working at McDonald’s,” she said. “And while I was there, fumbling my way through takeout orders, Bill pulls up and is blowing his horn and complaining about the slow service.

“ ‘Sorry, sir, it’s my first day,’ I said. I recognized his voice through the order speaker. When he pulled up to get his order, he was shocked to see ME in the takeout window handing him his Big Mac. He sent me an email apologizing right after and asked if there was anything he could do to make it up to me. We ended up putting him behind the McDonald’s counter taking orders, and he was a good sport about it.”

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

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

Later, the family moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, where Mr. Becker was class valedictorian at Notre Dame High School. He attended Haverford College. For a time, his father worked in Germany as a watch company consultant. Young Bill landed a summer job in Germany, where he “worked in a German beer garden and had to wear lederhosen,” his daughter said.

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

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

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

“He could do it all. He was extraordinarily ethical,” said his former law partner Arthur Muchin.

He said Winfrey hired their firm in the late 1980s for its labor expertise and Mr. Becker’s experience with broadcasting clients.

Mr. Becker told law.com he wasn’t very familiar with Winfrey when they met — but he remembered she liked his green-and-orange tie. Several years later, when she asked him to become her in-house general counsel, he retired from Laner Muchin and moved to Harpo.

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

As a young man, he didn’t like having to wear his uncle’s hand-me-down suits. Once he started making some 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 Photography

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

“He sent a long, beautiful piece about losing 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 companionship.’ It wasn’t, ‘I like to take walks along the beach.’ ’’

After several months of dating, they went out for dinner at the North Pond Cafe in Lincoln Park. She was looking over the menu when he told her she was missing the most important line. He’d had “Lauralea, will you marry me?” printed at the top.

“He got on his knees in front of everybody at the restaurant,” she said, “and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ ”

They were married in 2009 and lived downtown in a condo overlooking Millennium Park. They enjoyed theater, dining at Acanto restaurant and travel, including winter trips to Puerto Vallarta and a safari to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, where they saw rhinos, elephants, giraffes and wildebeest.

A Zoom memorial was planned for Saturday. In addition to his wife Lauralea Suess and daughter Cathy Becker, Mr. Becker is survived by his brothers Robert and Christopher and a granddaughter.