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Born to Austrian-American immigrants Lewis and Aurelia Burr Oppers in Madison, Ohio, Frederick was the eldest of three children. At the age of 14, he dropped out of school to work as a printer's apprentice at the local ''Madison Gazette'', and at 16, he moved to New York City where he worked in a store and continued to draw. He studied briefly at Cooper Union, followed by a short stint as pupil and assistant to illustrator Frank Beard.