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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 26, 2016 10:01 pm

Columbus root beer stand closing doors

MARK WEBBER | (Columbus) Republic

COLUMBUS, Ind. – Winter-weary Columbus residents have frequently gravitated toward Becker’s Drive-In at 25th and Union streets during the month of March.

Calendars, tree buds, meteorologists and even groundhogs are used by some to determine changing seasons, but many people in Bartholomew County grew up linking the annual reopening of the root beer stand near Columbus North High School with the true arrival of spring.

But not this year.

After 67 years, Becker’s Drive-In has closed for good, at least under family ownership.

"It was a real tough decision, and I know I’m disappointing a lot of people," owner William "Bill" Becker Jr. said. "We’ve been here a long time."

A number of potential investors are considering buying the business, and Becker acknowledges it might make good business sense to keep the iconic stand open under a different owner.

"But it’s time for me and my family to step aside," said Becker, who explained he no longer has the desire to work more than 90 hours a week, which he has been doing for nearly four decades.

News of the drive-in’s closing on a fan-sponsored social media page was described by Lisa Foldenauer Thompson as heartbreaking.

Another customer, Travis Kessler, called it a sad day for Columbus.

And after waiting months to take his 4-year-old son to Becker’s for a coney dog, Jimmy Robertson summed up what others might also have been thinking: "We need you guys to open!!"

After the owner’s father and business founder, William L. Becker, died in early 2013, family members said the 88-year-old’s claim to fame was coney dogs and root beer.

But the fan-sponsored Facebook page reveals degrees of admiration that extend beyond chili-covered sausages and sassafras root beverages.

Based on some posts, the root beer stand’s real specialty seemed to be instilling warm feelings based on cherished American values such as tradition, nostalgia, youth and summertime.

"We were a family-oriented place," Bill Becker said. "You didn’t have to get out of your car and deal with people. Instead, you had your own private space to listen to your music, read a book or talk with friends."

But just as tantalizing as glass mugs of tasty root beer is the history and character of the World War II veteran who started the business.

Born on the banks of the northern Mississippi River in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1924, William L. Becker spent much of his childhood either playing basketball or assisting his father, a railroad worker, at his job.

After graduating from high school in 1942, he joined the Army Air Corps and served his country in the South Pacific until after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.

While he briefly worked again for the railroads in LaCrosse after returning home, the former B-29 radio operator soon made up his mind to take daring steps in an effort to seize upon the post-war boom.

Although he had little money of his own, Becker wasted no time marrying his high school sweetheart and moving her 500 miles away from both of their families for an opportunity to open a restaurant franchise in Columbus.

"The Depression generation always found themselves behind the eight ball," his son said. "After the war ended, they had something to prove – and they certainly did."

Since his wife, Joan Dugan Becker, who is now retired, was also earning money as an educator – and he was eligible for assistance through the GI bill – the couple eventually rented a home across the cornfield from the business to raise their growing family, Bingham said.

Besides Bill and Mimi, there were three other daughters: Cathy, Ann and Rosemary.

Columbus only had 18,000 residents when the Beckers arrived in Bartholomew County compared to the 45,000 city population today.

The drive-in was in the right place at the right time as 25th Street became one of the most visible and well-traveled thoroughfares in the community.

The elder Becker also understood the best way to convince a community to support a business was for the owner to support the community.

So when business profits and other investments afforded him precious time away from work, William Becker became active in several service clubs and social fraternities, as well as civic and local political endeavors.

The drive-in provided more than 1,200 residents, mostly teens, with employment, the family estimates. While he would strive to instill a strong work ethic in his workers, the elder Becker made it a habit to drive his carhops himself to ensure they got home safely, Bingham said.

One of William Becker’s proudest moments came when he was able to afford to buy out corporate interests, and continue operating independently as Becker’s Drive-In. Another came in November 2005, when he was honored with the Governor’s Half-Century Business award by Mitch Daniels.

His only son, who worked at the drive-in during high school, left a job secured through the University of Cincinnati to help his father run the business, Bingham said.

But after assuming full management in the 1980s, the job became increasingly more demanding.

"It’s all consuming," Bill Becker said. "Even when you come home, all you talk about is work. Your life revolves around your business."

But upon reflection, Becker looks back on his own career as an adventure, where the satisfaction comes from overcoming challenges, organizing efforts and working with others toward a common goal, he said.

While his former business life is over, Becker acknowledges that as he’s approached in a supermarket or community event, many people are going to tell him how much they miss his coney dogs and root beer in real glass mugs.

But no one has poured more love into the old root beer stand than Bill Becker himself.