Friday, August 11, 2006


Jerry Baum.

Last month my favorite college professor died. His name was Jerry Baum, and he was an English lit professor at Lewis and Clark College. I think teaching was what paid the bills--but social justice and community activism was his real vocation. Although we didn't bump into each other, he was apparently active in community based organizations. (And he walked his talk, tool--literally. In college, I was shocked to learn that he had given up his car years earlier to support public transportation.) He was one of the kindest, most gentle men I ever knew.

In class, he refused to call himself the professor and considered us all equals. He described himself as the moderator of the class. Although we were in the computer age (late 1980s), he requested that we write our papers by hand so that he could get a sense of our personalities. As an avowed anarchist (I think he was actually more of a latter-day socialist and humanist), he refused to grade our papers--and his classes were all offered "pass/fail" (everyone passed). Anyone could take his classes, enrolled or not, students of the college or not.

He led my friend's overseas trip to England, and they went straight to Edinborough, Scotland, where he taught them labor history. Many of their classes were taught at pubs.

The occasion I remember him most distinctly was when he popped his head into the booth during my radio show at KLC, the college radio station. I was playing Billie Holiday, and he smiled with great relish, held up the record (it was all vinyl back then) and said, "Subversive." I loved him for that.

The last time I spoke to him, maybe five years ago, I mentioned that I was a former student, and I could see he didn't remember me. Understandable, given the space of time since we last had a class together and the number of students he had in his 30+ years as a professor. Interestingly, this didn't seem to matter. He put his hand on my arm and asked what I was doing. I told him I was a researcher at the School of Social Work and he smiled and nodded. "Good," he said.

Rest in peace, Jerry. I'll crack an ale and toast you, wherever you are--


Sandra said...

Joe told me all abut Jerry, who obviously was a swell guy. Your descriptions of his in-class style remind me of one of my favorite professors. Folks like that don't come around often.

Joe said...

I'm the friend Jeff mentions who went to Britain on one of Jerry's overseas study trips. Jerry was truly a very rare, special, genuinely caring human being. He has affected my thinking and values forever and will always shine as a beacon of inspiration, just like the lighthouses he loved all his life since his early stint in the Coast Guard. It was actually Glasgow we went to first for a couple months before Edinburgh, then London. Glasgow was Jerry's favorite city in Europe, a real working-class town, and he wanted us young American students to experience it before anywhere else. Jerry always put the most down-to-earth people first. He once told our class, "If you really want an honest education, drop out of college and then read all the books in the library. ...But since you're here, I'll try to do the best I can." ;) I went to his Memorial Service at L&C on Sunday. It was packed with friends, relatives, and students. There were pictures of Che and Emma Goldman on display next to Jerry's. Many people spoke. Another old professor said, "He was the kindest, most compassionate anarchist revolutionary I've ever met." I think that's right on. Goodbye and Peace, Jerry. We love you.

Janet said...

I was a student at LC in the latter '60's. Somehow, I knew that this man was approachablel, and since I was in dire straits, I called on him. His empathy helped me through a tough time and I've not forgotten thought through all these years. I wish I had known him better.

Anonymous said...

I was an English major at Lewis and Clark College in the 60s and, like you, loved and admired Jerry Baum. I am now an English major and probably am so because Jerry was there and supportive when I was young and insecure. I only found out that Jerry had died a couple of months ago. Since finding out, I have been working with the Development Office at L&C to set up a fund in his honor. If you are interested in contributing, contact the alumni office.


Anonymous said...

A correction to the last posting--it should read "I am now an English professor [not major!!]." Sorry, I've never posted on a blog before.