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July 31, 2001

Trading for Life: One senior trader recalls how he rebuilt his life soon after fleeing Nazi Germany

By Sanford Wexler

Also in this article

  • Trading for Life: One senior trader recalls how he rebuilt his life soon after fleeing Nazi Germany

Ninety three-year old John H. Slade earned his fame and fortune.

A senior trader at Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York City, he did it the hard way and came up through the ranks. Slade prospered at one of the few remaining independent Wall Street firms.

Now into his 65th year at Bear, Stearns, Slade is a senior managing director of the international department, and the honorary chairman of the firm's executive committee.

He has seen it all before - from the "go-go 60s" collapse and the sluggish early 1970s, to the 1987 crash and the more recent and terrible tech wreck. So the recent slide in the marketplace does not bother this hardy veteran. "Human beings get sick and then get better," Slade said, philosophically.

Field Hockey

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of a successful real estate broker, Slade originally aspired to become an Olympic athlete with Germany's field hockey team. At the time he was considered one of Germany's star athletes. Indeed, it was expected that young Slade would compete in the 1936 Olympics in his nation's capital, Berlin.

Hitler's rise to power in 1933 dashed Slade's hopes of ever making it to the Olympic games. Two years later, in 1935, the notorious Nuremberg Laws were enacted. They stripped Germany's Jews of their political, economic and civil rights. When Slade was told by his team's coach that he could no longer play with the team because he was Jewish, he foresaw, he said, the devastation and destruction that Hitler's Nazi Germany would bring with it.

"I heard on the German radio that any Jew found kissing a Gentile would be thrown into jail. I knew it was time to get out of Germany in a hurry," Slade sadly recalled in his still-strong German accent.

Coming to America

Slade arrived in the United States on March 25, 1936, at the age of 27 with only a suitcase and a letter of introduction from a former bank employer in Germany to the employer's nephew in the U.S., Joseph Bear, who founded Bear Stearns with Robert Stearns and Harold Mayer. The next day Slade began his Wall Street career as a runner with Bear Stearns. The salary was $15 a week.

At the suggestion from Bear Stearns, he changed his surname from Hans Schlesinger to the more Americanized Slade.

"I remember the first day I began working for Bear Stearns. An elderly gentleman asked me who I was and I told him. He replied that he was Mr. Bear, the senior partner of the firm, and that I should call him Uncle Joe. I could not do it," Slade recalled. Joseph Bear, co-founder of the firm that immortalized his name, did not take offense.

Slade soon discovered that the key to prospering on Wall Street was generating commissions. So he built up his customer base by meeting the ships carrying fleeing German refugees as they set foot in New York. Slade carefully studied the passenger lists and looked for German names that he recognized. Within a few years he signed up over 20 clients for Bear Stearns.

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