A 'rock' star remembered

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:55

    Not everyone knew Jack Baum, but anyone who had any interest at all in rocks and geology, and who lived in Sussex County might have come across his name from time to time. That’s because Jack Baum, who majored in the geological sciences and was graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1939, knew just about everything you’d need to know about geology. A quiet but good-natured man — at least when I knew him — he was also gracious and always willing to answer questions about his lifelong work and profession. He was surely proud of his knowledge and work, but he was never at all pedantic about it. He was just a good all-around guy you liked to associate with. Jack Baum, who passed away on Oct. 16 at the age of 95, was once a geologist for the New Jersey Zinc Co., and years later, after retirement, was president of the Franklin/Ogdensburg Mineralogical Society. He was also the first curator of the Franklin Mineral Museum from its inception in 1965 until leaving that post and becoming a curator emeritus in 2001. It was soon after that time that I first met and became acquainted with Mr. Baum, when I was briefly a tour guide at the mineral museum in 2002-03. He had an office in the museum and between tours, or on a slow day, I would go into Baum’s office and ask to speak with him. He always said yes, and told me to pull up a chair, which I gladly did. It didn’t take very long for me to develop first an interest, and then a fascination about Franklin and its famous mining days of yore, back when the now-defunct zinc company called basically all the shots, not only in the mines but also for the town of Franklin itself. Franklin was once a company town where the one job was the mines or those who worked for the company as, say, a time keeper like my friend Joe Bene did from 1947 to 1952. The zinc company, you see, didn’t just employ its workers but it also found them housing, in some cases, even building houses for them — as it did for the great mining supervisor Robert Catlin, otherwise known as “the man who saved Franklin.” I first learned that from Jack Baum, even before I met and became well-acquainted with the Franklin Historical Society. I learned a lot of things, you might say, from Mr. Baum. And so did many others. “He was just an expert on minerals and he was a very personable man,” said Betty Allen, the former historical society president. “He was always very easy to talk to. He was so connected to the history of our area and he certainly will be missed.” Jack Baum had a talent for making friends, one of whom was Lee Lowell, who has served as mineral museum treasurer since 1992. He, too, has many fond memories about Baum. “He was a gentleman,” Lowell explained last week. “Jack was a real gentleman and he was good to me when I became treasurer in 1992. He did not flaunt his education, like some do. He enjoyed answering questions. I asked him a lot, and we should have recorded some of those conversations.” But Baum was not only generous with information. Lowell, who is also a personable man, recalls another event with Baum. “I’d been to Jack’s house several times over the years, and he showed me his collection,” Lowell said. “One time he told me, 'Lee, there’s a rock right there with your name on it.’ And I would say, 'Oh, you mean for the museum;’ and he’d say, 'No, I mean it’s for you.’” Some time ago, Baum made a big donation of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, D.C. However, his real donations were to the field of mineralogy in general and to the local Franklin-Ogdensburg area in particular. I liked him not only because of his knowledge, but also because he represented a time in American history that, in some ways, seems to be fading quickly into oblivion to many today. He really was one of the many who helped make America great, and he was later an educator, a public servant and a collector who understood well the meaning of giving. And yes, he was always a friend. I counted him as a friend, and I consider myself fortunate that I had the chance to know him, however briefly. Indeed, he will be missed.