Jennifer Becker fashioned her first violin at age 10 out of scraps pilfered from the tiny attic workshop on Chicago’s Northside that her grandfather Carl Becker shares with her father, Carl Jr. “We strung it up, and it played,” recalls her father, still savoring his delight. “We decided Jenny had to have her chance.” Now 18, Jennifer has established herself as the third generation in a family of violin makers whose tradition of excellence began in 1901, when her grandfather crafted his first violin. Experts predict that the best of roughly 800 Becker violins, cellos and violas that have followed over the past 70 years will take a place in history beside the legendary instruments of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. Carl Jr., in fact, was entrusted with the year-long restoration of the 1721 Stradivarius “The Lady Blunt” which then resold for a record-breaking $200,000.
Jennifer’s intensely patient dedication to her craft—it takes years of carving and varnishing to make a perfect instrument—might be camouflaged by her casual blue jeans and granny glasses. But only a precisionist would describe her height as she does, as “five feet eleven and nine-sixteenths inches.” Her studies in a local Lutheran high school completed, Jennifer is free to devote full time to building a group of six violins—a commission she landed at the unheard-of age of 15. “We may have to rename the firm ‘Carl Becker and Son and Granddaughter,’ ” chuckles a proud papa.
Leo Saenz, a 19-year-old 154-lb. middleweight, has clobbered all 14 challengers in his first year as a pro—nine of them into unconsciousness. “Lemme see,” mutters Eli Hanover who promotes Leo’s fights in the Baltimore-Washington area. “He’s knocked out four guys with left hooks and five with straight rights, and he’s never had a fight where he didn’t knock the guy down at least once.” Leo’s ring style is flawed by a willingness to take too many punches in order to score with his own shots. But then Leo has been taking punches all his life.
Born to the vicious poverty endemic among American migrant farmers, Leo was turned out into the Texas fields by his Mexican-American parents, just as his 13 brothers and sisters had been. He was not yet in the fifth grade. When he was 14, the family migrated to Michigan to harvest fruit, but Leo ran away and lived the sweaty, boozy, violent life of the migrant camps until Kalamazoo’s Golden Gloves program gave him a glimpse of a way out. Hearing about Saenz’s promise, Barry Locke, a public relations man from suburban Potomac, Md., agreed to take Leo into his household and to serve as his manager. Saenz and Locke have made a dynamic duo. Mrs. Locke, occasionally aided by her three daughters, oversees Leo’s roadwork each morning. Nights, he works out at Eli Hanover’s gym located above a strip joint on Baltimore’s tawdry Block. “I think I know what’s behind the walls down there,” says Saenz. But the fleshly temptations at his feet will not upset the young pugilist’s strict regimen. “I’ve lived with that already.”