Strawberry yields


Friday afternoon Herbert Baum walked across the Rockefeller Chapel chancel to accept his PhD in economics—55 years after leaving the University “ABD,” or “all but dissertation.” At 79, Baum, AM’51, PhD’07, is the oldest person ever to earn a doctorate from the University. Perhaps more notably, three Nobel laureates sat on his dissertation committee: James Heckman; Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55; and Milton Friedman, AM’33.

Before returning to the U of C to discuss economics with Nobel laureates, Baum spent 33 years as CEO of Naturipe, a California company that sells strawberries. Elected twice as chair of the California Strawberry Commission, Baum helped transform the business: once available only locally and during a short season, California strawberries are now shipped all over the country, year-round. All the while, “I always had in mind that I was one of the many ABDs around,” Baum said in a phone interview. “I always wanted to finish my degree but needed an adequate dissertation. So that I could write about it intelligently, not as an abstraction, I accumulated boxes and boxes of data” about the strawberry business.

After retiring in 1991, Baum approached the University’s economics department about writing a dissertation on the strawberry industry. “They said it was certainly a suitable subject.” Baum set out to transform his boxes of data and years of experience into what became The Quest for the Perfect Strawberry, published by iUniverse in 2005. The book, he says, “analyzes the California strawberry industry from the point of view of pomology, horticulture, and marketing.” The new varieties developed by the University of California and new horticulture techniques created since 1972, Baum explains, contributed most to California’s dominance in the market.

“I did want to write a book anyway,” says Baum, but “I wrote it always having in mind that it might suffice as a dissertation.” He sent an advertisement for the book to James Heckman, who replied, “Please send copies.” So Baum and his wife packed up and moved from their home in Depoe Bay, Oregon, to Hyde Park for the summer, staying in the Regents Park apartment building. “We brought our desktop computer and laptop,” Baum says, because “we didn’t know what kind of changes we’d have to make.” On July 10 Baum appeared before the economics faculty at a public seminar. “They said, ‘Congratulations, Dr. Baum.’ It was pretty exciting.”

For now, Baum is still hard at work. Back in Depoe Bay, he teaches social studies and economics at a junior college. He's also inspired by Heckman’s call for investment in early-childhood education. “I’m trying to use his work in Oregon to emphasize early-childhood education there.” First, however, Baum is scheduled to meet with Milton Friedman in California.

Jenny Fisher, ’07

Photo: After the ceremony, Baum chats with a fourth-year Pritzker medical student and her grandparents.

Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

August 30, 2006