The Passing of a Great Man
The time between this column and the last one posted here is the longest time between columns in the more than two year life of this blog. The reason is very simple. My father-in-law died a week ago and I have been mourning the passing of not only a man I loved, but an American Hero.
For those of you who come here for future oriented commentary on what is going on in the world, this will be a departure. However as we are now entering a new age that seems filled with upheaval and yet provides an opportunity for human transformation, I submit that taking a look at a life lived by a man who had a strong moral compass, deep compassion, a profound love of this country and a fierce commitment to excellence, might well serve as a sign post for all of us as we face our future.
The most succinct way to introduce him is through his own words. My father-in-law had achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor a Boy Scout could attain, at the early age of 16. When my son also reached this milestone by his 18th birthday he realized that he needed to invite an Eagle Scout to initiate him into this rank of honor. My son asked me if â€œThe Generalâ€ as he referred to my father-in-law, might be willing to stand up for him at the Eagle Scout induction ceremony. He asked me this because he was nervous to ask a man he so respected and who was some 60 years his elder. Of course my father-in-law was honored to be asked and said yes.
Days later, standing in front of a large crowd of people who had come to honor my son on this day of recognition, I introduced the most distinguished looking man in the room. Walking up to the stage, my father-in-law grabbed onto the podium and, without notes, in a stentorian voice that the belied the effects of his Parkinsonâ€™s disease said â€” and I quote, as the words were so memorable:
â€œMy name is Bernhard H. Baum. As a Jewish boy of seven, I left Nazi Germany with my family and came to this country. I found and joined the Boy Scouts, and it was the experience of being a Boy Scout that taught me what it meant to be an American. I became an Eagle Scout and in the process of becoming one I learned the meaning of the word honor. I then joined the U.S. Army as soon as I had graduated high school and did my part to help defeat the Nazis and free the country of my birth. I came back to the United States, earned three degrees from the University of Chicago, raised a family I love, became a professor at a distinguished university and became a brigadier general. Only in America could this happen!â€
He then stood with my son and initiated him as an Eagle Scout. It was difficult to discern which one of the two was more honored to be there.
Bernie was part of â€œthe greatest generationâ€, yet his relatively unique symmetry of being a Jewish immigrant who went back to defeat Hitler placed him in a documentary along with Henry Kissinger( another man with the same trajectory). Bernie was always proud of that. As with most heroes of WWII he refused to speak of the unspeakable experiences he must have endured when fighting for his country, the United States, and for freedom of his homeland. Instead he spoke of his love and pride of America. As the highest ranking veteran on the North Shore of Chicago, for 35 years he lead the July 4th parade in Evanston Illinois, proud to fit into his old uniform and standing up and saluting each American flag that passed him on the reviewing stand.
He had long and devoted relationships with institutions, yet always created them uniquely. As a professor at the University of Illinois he created new curricula and found his own unique way of teaching, winning several Golden Apple awards in the process. He was a loyal member of a synagogue and deeply religious, yet chose to orient his patriotism not to Israel but to, as he would say, â€œmy country, the United States of Americaâ€. He honored the institution of marriage with a long and loving marriage that provided him with four children and nine grandchildren. In recent years he said: â€œI have lived a rich, colorful life, I was a decent human being, I was blessed with a wonderful family, what more could a man ask for?â€ He honored life with a joie de vivre that was hard to surpass.
Bernie had a unique relationship to this blog. He is one of only three people who I know, my wife and I being the other two, who read every single column I have written here. He could never adjust to reading on a computer screen so he printed out every single column to read in printed form. I accepted this as part of his aging process, and chose not to point out that this was environmentally unsound, as he was a man who, along with his wife decades earlier, had chained himself to trees to prevent them from being cut down for some building development. He kept every single printed column, organized chronologically (he was obsessive in his organization, being both of Germanic descent and a General) in a big green expandable folder. This folder was of actual help to me as I worked to translate columns here into a physical book.
I came to expect the occasional rigorous discussion of something I had written here, so he was always part of the audience to whom I wrote. This is probably the first column I have written that will not be printed out on Bernhard H. Baumâ€™s printer, yet for the life of this blog I will continue to write each column as though it will be. As he did with all who know him, it will make what I do better than it otherwise would be
A great man has passed, but his greatness lives on in all who had the privilege of knowing him..