The name Alvin Baum has achieved household status in Bay Area nonprofit circles, particularly among those involved in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, the arts, civil liberties, and a host of other causes and interests.
That’s because Alvin H. Baum Jr., who will turn 90 next year and has lived in San Francisco for more than six decades, is a philanthropist’s philanthropist — a donor who not only gives generously but inspires others to do so, as well.
For his charitable efforts, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation will award Baum its Robert Sinton Award for Distinguished Leadership at its 9th annual Day of Philanthropy on Nov. 19 at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.
“Al is ardent and passionate in his pursuit of justice,” said Federation CEO Danny Grossman. “He has been an exceptional leader — leading through the force of his conviction. In the Jewish community and beyond, he has been a pathbreaker in pursuit of inclusion for LGBT people.”
Following a 12 to 2 p.m. luncheon to honor Baum, and a keynote speech by philanthropist and former Citigroup chair Sanford Weill, Baum and his husband, 62-year-old interior designer Robert Holgate, will talk about the influences and impetus behind their giving in an afternoon session titled “Storytelling with Inspiring Leaders.”
Baum recently told J. that storytelling has been a driving, lifelong passion, which is why, in part, he changed vocations in midlife. After two successful careers — as an attorney and urban planner — he became a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, maintaining a practice well into his 70s.
“I have a tendency to want to hear people’s stories,” Baum said.
But the sharp-witted man about town also revels in sharing his own stories — and not only those that involve writing large checks to institutions and serving on their boards, a list that includes the ACLU of Northern California; S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services; the New Israel Fund; Lambda Legal; the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; and the Access Institute for Psychological Services.
Rather than dwell on his role as “Gay Jew in Chief,” a self-description that aptly covers his philanthropic pursuits, Baum is frankly more interested in narratives that reveal the emotional and intellectual depths and contours of a person. It’s a rigorous, humbling form of scrutiny that Baum, a distant relation to another storyteller, “The Catcher in the Rye” author J. D. Salinger, assiduously applies to himself.
Baum talked at length about his formative years in Chicago. Born into an affluent Jewish family at the height of the Great Depression, he spent his earliest years in the Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago and a large enclave of German Jews (though his mother’s family, the Coplands, were originally from Lithuania). He started off at the university’s Lab School, which remains one of Chicago’s elite private day schools.
When he was 6 or 7, his family moved north to Highland Park, which in the 1930s was emerging as one of Chicago’s most prosperous Jewish-identified suburbs.
His father was the head of a successful investment firm, and young Al Jr. and his younger brother, David, thrived in a competitive academic environment. Baum graduated third in his high school class; he, like the valedictorian and salutatorian, also both Jewish, attended Harvard as undergraduates.
Like their tony neighbors, the Baums were members of North Shore Congregation Israel, which “I attended under protest,” Baum said. He was confirmed, but in keeping with Reform tradition at that time, “not bar mitzvahed.”
While Baum was not particularly enthralled by synagogue life, his place in the milieu of educated, high-achieving, well-to-do Jews was secure. Less certain, he recalled, was how he would fare in the part of his life that was integral to his understanding of himself as a person.
Baum waxed reflective as he described his early adult years, when he was “in the closet for so long” and struggling to come to terms with his own sexual orientation. A full, public reckoning did not occur until the mid 1970s, when, well into his 40s, he was prominently featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article about a short-lived LGBTQ venture called Lavender University, a continuing education institute.
“My whole life flashed before me in an instant,” Baum said, recalling how he knew that going on the record as an out gay man 45 years ago would have repercussions, even in the liberal Bay Area. “But I realized that I couldn’t say no [to coming out publicly], since I’d been telling other people to come out.”
The upshot, Baum said, was that he was turned down for a state position several years later, when it became apparent that his interviewer didn’t care for gay people. “It was clear to me after two minutes that I wouldn’t get the job,” Baum said.
But the upside to coming out, he added, was that he would no longer have to endure awkward questions about his marriage plans from the mothers of girls he dated.
In 1977, 25 years after he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and 22 years after he graduated cum laude from its law school, Baum wrote to members of the class of 1952.
“I have become more open, more accepting, less ‘uptight,’ in both my professional and my person life,” he wrote. “I came to grips with the fact that for me there was not going to be any wife and kids, and that if I were ever to have what I’d thought I wanted — the house ‘with the white picket fence’ — the partner there would be a man rather than a woman.”
That “white picket fence” arrived some 25-plus years later, when he met Holgate, whom he initially interviewed to design his then newly purchased home.
“After five minutes, I knew that I wanted to work with him,” Baum said. “After five weeks, I knew that I had fallen in love with him. And after five months, he agreed to go on a date with me.”
Ten years later, Baum and Holgate were married in a ceremony co-officiated by Rabbi Camille Angel, then with the S.F. congregation where Baum has been a member for many years, Sha’ar Zahav. (A representative from the Buddhist community was the other officiant, representing Holgate’s spiritual beliefs.)
Holgate, as well as Baum, has his own philanthropic interests, among them the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the New Conservatory Theatre Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, all in San Francisco. He is also the only non-Jewish board member of Keshet, which advances the interests of LGBTQ Jews.
The Sinton Award is named for the late Robert Sinton, a businessman and community leader whose dedication to the Federation and other Bay Area organizations spanned more than five decades.
Reflecting on own civic involvement for about the same number of years, during which he has received many other accolades, including the Human Rights Campaign’s James C. Hormel Community Service Award, Baum said that it was a close friend, a gay Catholic man, and not his late father (whose own Chicago-based Alvin H. Baum Family Fund exists to this day), who inspired him to turn to philanthropy.
“We attended a bring-your-own-bottle party together,” Baum said, recalling the aha moment with this friend, “and I brought a half-consumed bottle of scotch. Patrick asked me why I didn’t bring a full bottle, and I said, ‘Why should I?’ ‘Because you have the money, and it’s insulting to bring a used bottle,’ he said.”
It was at that moment, Baum observed, when “I had a consciousness about my own good luck to have been born to the right parents and grandparents.”
Gary Grossman of San Francisco, who has known Baum professionally for 30 years, said that the éminence grise among Jewish LGBTQ community members “has been a role model for philanthropy.”
Grossman, a psychoanalyst, praised Baum’s “generosity towards, and advocacy for, the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community [which have] enabled many important service organizations to thrive.” But beyond that, he added, Baum “has donated and helped raise a significant amount of money that has enabled the provision of long-term, outpatient psychotherapy to members of our Bay Area community who would otherwise not have access to such quality care.
“I wish we could clone him,” Grossman said.