Hal Baron, adviser, ‘Idea Man’ to Mayor Harold Washington
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Hal Baron was known as Mayor Harold Washington’s “idea man.”
The St. Louis native came to Hyde Park to study philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research and relationships with politicians and policy-makers carried him into strategic posts at City Hall, the Chicago Urban League and the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, where he worked on school reform, economic development, and housing and environmental issues.
Decades before other scholars, he identified and wrote about examples of institutional racism, racial disparities in school funding and the underclass, said Lou Turner, director of undergraduate and graduate studies in the department of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Mr. Baron, 86, died Jan. 18 at the home he shared with Paula, his wife of 63 years, in the Edgewater Beach Apartments.
He had an eye for political talent, according to Frank L. Bixby, an honorary life director of the Chicago Urban League. “Hal got me interested in Harold [Washington],” Bixby said. “He said, ‘This is the guy who can really make a difference.’ Hal would always tell me about the promising people he thought could be the future changers and movers in the struggle for racial equality.”
Mr. Baron became an important member of Washington’s City Hall. “What didn’t he work on, in terms of what the mayor did?” asked Timothy W. Wright, a special counsel to Washington. “It ranges from community-based economic development; our lakefront policy. I think Hal was involved in our waste management policy. … Hal was a thinker and somebody the mayor trusted, and he was in sync with the mayor.”
In 1963, he earned a PhD in history from the University of Chicago. A few years later, working for the Chicago Urban League, Mr. Baron did research that became a key component of a landmark lawsuit that changed public housing in Chicago, said James W. Compton, the league’s retired president and CEO. The Gautreaux case charged the CHA violated the U.S. Constitution by concentrating public housing in poor African-American neighborhoods. The discrimination lawsuit resulted in an end to non-elderly CHA highrises and new scattered-site public housing in integrated communities.
Mr. Baron “was one of the first people in the country to test … the 1964 Civil Rights Act” to fight institutional discrimination, Turner said.
“He was a pioneer in so many areas of race relations in this country,” said Turner, who is helping to compile Mr. Baron’s writings for a book. “I’m really in awe of the guy.”
“He was an excellent researcher,” said Compton. “He could make something plain and clear. … Some of that research was used by Dr. [Martin Luther] King when he came [to Chicago] in 1966 to address the issues of segregation of housing, both private and public.”
From 1970 to 1982, Mr. Baron taught urban studies in a Chicago program of Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a consortium of liberal arts colleges.
In the 1980s, he worked on the campaigns of Democratic candidates including U.S. Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois and Paul Wellstone, a U.S. senator from Minnesota.
He worked as an adviser to Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia during his 2015 mayoral campaign. “Hal was a passionate warrior for social justice,” Garcia said. “He was a key adviser to Mayor Harold Washington on economic development issues, especially on behalf of poor people in the neighborhoods. In recent years he was very involved in projects to help poor rural communities in El Salvador so they could become sustainable by growing their own food as well as engage in fair trade.”
Mr. Baron loved plays by Bertolt Brecht, and, for half a century, he had a regular poker night with friends. He enjoyed fishing and canoe trips in the North Woods.
He is also survived by his daughter Marnie Saeugling and sons Eddie and Mark; a brother, Morton; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial is planned at 11:30 a.m. March 12 in the Sister Jean Delores Schmidt Ballroom at Loyola University’s Damen Student Center, 6511 N. Sheridan Rd.