Too much to do: At 82, Harris Baum is not slowing down
The honorary consul general of the Republic of Korea in Philadelphia doesn’t receive a dime. But he does get a reserved parking spot right outside his swank Market Street office.
The man who has literally traveled the world and done things most of us couldn’t imagine — cycling through Europe, horseback riding in Iceland, backpacking in the Himalayas — when he wasn’t building a law office from the ground up into a top firm, says he continues to challenge himself to try to stay young.
After all, Harris Baum is “only” 82 years old.
“I’ll never forget once crossing a bridge made of ropes 14,000 feet high,” he recalls, discussing his penchant for traveling the world and doing the unusual. “I’m leaning against a mountain, digging my fingers into a rock, seeing the clouds below. I started to hyperventilate and say to myself, ‘What’s a kid from Logan doing here?’ ”
A Jewish kid, no less. One who attended Temple University, where he was a psychology-political science major who was graduated in just three years.
He started out working in a law office and before long became deputy attorney general under Gov. David Lawrence in the early 1960s, working in the antitrust division of the film industry. Some of his clients included Johnny Weissmuller, Esther Williams and Elvis Presley’s father.
He also married his first wife, Joyce, who passed away at 46, leaving behind three children.
He later married Myrna Field, who became a judge in the Family Court system. They were together until her death in 2007.
Baum has never taken the easy route in his life or his career, the last 10 years of which he’s spent as the honorary consul general. It’s quite a gig, one he attained almost completely by accident, simply because he decided to start up a conversation one day while on a bus to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“I was always involved in exercise and taking care of myself,” explains Baum, a trial attorney who formed a partnership with mergers and acquisition specialist Norman Zarwin 57 years ago; since then, his firm employs nearly 100 people at its five offices in Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware. “Getting my brown belt in taekwondo I developed some friendships with a number of Koreans. I had a professor at Penn attempt to teach me the language. In 2001, we were going to South Africa for a safari.
“I’m on a bus from Philadelphia to JFK airport, sitting next to a Korean gentleman and started speaking Korean,” continues Baum. “He was flabbergasted. He gave me his card and told me he’d call me when I got back.”
The man Baum struck up that conversation with was Mun Chang, one of the largest importers of wigs in the United States. Before long, Mun became a client, then began introducing him to more influential Koreans, including people in the government.
It was through that connection that Baum learned there was an opening as an honorary consul in Philadelphia, which is not to be confused with an actual consul general, a diplomatic — and paid — position. He went through channels, applied for it and assumed his post in 2006.
So what exactly does an honorary consul general do?
“I get involved in the political aspects of Korean-American life,” answers Baum, who recently fired off a letter expressing his outrage to the Korea Times following a series of published anti-Semitic attacks against Paul Singer, the president of Elliott Associates, the American hedge fund that tried to block a merger between subsidiaries of Samsung, the country’s largest corporation. “I get involved with the social, cultural and religious aspects of the Korean-American community here.
“I will attend funerals. I once identified the body of a tourist who died. I officiated a Buddhist wedding, which I’d learned to do while in Tibet. I’m involved in getting the people out to vote,” he adds. “And I’m also making sure — or at least attempting to make sure the younger generations don’t become too Americanized, forgetting the history and beautiful culture of Korea.”
According to Baum, there are 18 honorary Korean consul generals in the United States, including another Jewish one in Connecticut. Besides them are a number of consul generals, part of the country’s traditional diplomatic corps. A country can appoint multiple consul generals in different cities, but only one ambassador.
Currently, there are 17 honorary consuls in Western Pennsylvania. The countries represented in Pittsburgh are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sultanate of Oman, and the United Kingdom. At least one of those honorary consuls, Mahnaz M. Harrison, is Jewish.
Baum has made four trips to South Korea, as well as three to Israel, where he once met the Korean ambassador and had a memorable exchange.
“I was having dinner with my wife in Jerusalem when someone told me the Korean ambassador to Israel was in town and asked if I’d like to meet him,” recalls Baum. “The next morning, I went to see him in Tel Aviv.
“We went into his library and I saw all these books on Judaica behind him. I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, I’m very impressed.’ He said to me, ‘The Jewish people and the Korean people have three things in common: family, education and helping each other.’
“I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, you must be part of the Lost Tribe.’ And he laughed. But it’s true. From my position the past 10 years, I find Korean-Americans very interested in education. They are very hard working, entrepreneurial [and] family oriented, and [they] generally help each other. That makes my job enjoyable and more interesting. That’s why I do what I do.”
Jon Marks is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.