For 95 years, Dr. Arnold B. Becker has both lived and portrayed history, a dualism that’s still alive and well in Mount Vernon.
Last Saturday, some two dozen friends and former patients of this former Army Lieutenant Colonel, dentist and portrayer of George Washington assembled at the Old Country Buffet on Route 1 to honor Becker: not only his longevity but his dedication to his profession, his community, and his zest for life.
After graduating from St. Louis University dental school in 1925, Becker spent 35 years on active duty with the U.S. Army, serving as a dentist on the battlefield at the Battle of the Bulge, in Japan, at West Point and finally at Fort Belvoir.
Locally, though, he was known for his dentistry practice and civic involvement, and, along with his wife Margaret, for portraying the nation’s first couple, General George and Martha Washington. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s they appeared at both the Mount Vernon Estate and at a wide array of local events and venues.
“WE PORTRAYED GEORGE and Martha Washington at both the Estate and in ceremonies in Alexandria. We were in the parades and at Birthnight balls at Gadsby’s Tavern,” Becker said.
Becker and his wife, who died 10 years ago, were first encouraged to don the attire of George and Martha by the late Bernice Carter Davis and Mayme Parker. Originally, Becker was asked to portray Washington because he had “the nose,” said Parker. Becker’s nose “made him a natural for the role,” she said.
Davis, herself, had portrayed Martha many times, and but was aging and persuaded Margaret Becker to take over the role “to keep history alive,” going so far as to make Margaret Becker’s first Martha Washington dress.
As for Becker, his only problem with the role, in addition to mixed emotions about Parker’s assessment that “he had Washington’s nose,” was in keeping up the knee length silk stockings worn by men at that time. All these years later he will not reveal his secret of success in accomplishing that task.
Throughout their tenure, doctor Becker and his wife, took on the role of George and Martha Washington many times each year, earning respect from neighbors, friends and history lovers.
EVEN AT 95, Becker speaks with a strong voice and exhibits his well-known sense of humor. According to former patients, he always had a big smile.
But Becker did not exhibit that smile while portraying Washington. He noted the General smiled very little in public due to his false teeth, of which he was self-conscious. It was ironic, Becker said, to ask a dentist to portray a man with such a condition. “But the changes in dentistry, just in my lifetime, have been outstanding,” he said.
“When I was doing dental surgery in the Army during World War II, I’d have a many as 22 fractured jaws to operate on at one time,” Becker explained. While at West Point, he worked on John Eisenhower, son of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“My last duty assignment was Fort Belvoir,” Becker said. “That’s where I retired from the Army in 1960. We bought the house at 5400 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway and I built my office in the house.” That’s where he practiced until five years ago, when he retired at age 90.
Among those gathered to honor Becker was long-time friend, and former patient, Alice Norsworthy. “I was a patient for more than 27 years and a good friend of his wife,” she said. “I can remember when he was active in the Mount Vernon Lions Club and called the square dances.”
ACTIVE ORGANIZERS of the birthday luncheon and Becker’s next door neighbors for the past 14 years were Linda and Russ Flint. “When we first moved in we rented from Dr. Becker. Then we bought the home from him,” Linda Flint said. “He is an amazing person.”
John Vickers-Smith, a retired U.S. Army Warrant Officer, has known Becker for 30 years. “I first met he and his wife when they were portraying George and Martha Washington at a dance in Alexandria,” he said. “They were great.”
Ginger and Dusty Rhodes met Becker “while having lunch right here at the Old Country Buffet. Sometimes we pick him up and bring him here. It’s been going on for the about five years,” she said.
Surrounded by admirers, with birthday balloons tied to his wheel chair, and a large cake in front of him with candles waiting to be blown out, Arnold Becker was the living personification of his alter ego — soldier, citizen, and the embodiment of American largess.