George Elbaum flunked his first physics exam at MIT and continued to fail physics throughout the semester. But when a fraternity brother asked him for help in physics the night before the final, “within 10 minutes everything clicked, and I suddenly understood,” he says, adding that both he and his fraternity brother passed the course.
“I had been so intimidated by physics, but I have since grown to love it. Physics is beautiful,” he says, adding that now a driving interest is cosmology, specifically the concept of time and how the universe originated.
Elbaum, along with his wife Mimi Jensen, recently made a continuing commitment to MIT to support graduate fellowships in the Department of Physics. “Having had a fellowship for my doctoral studies at MIT gave me the freedom to choose a program, a direction, and a thesis advisor, and I want our fellowships to provide the same freedom to other students,” he says.
Elbaum earned four degrees from MIT — a bachelor’s in 1959 and a master’s in 1963, both in aeronautics and astronautics — and a master’s in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1967, both in nuclear engineering.
He began his career in Los Angeles in the aerospace industry, then in 1972 he co-founded Intertorg, a consulting company representing American and European firms in the Soviet Union (including General Motors, U.S. Steel, Reebok, etc.,) where he marketed their products and services. With offices in Moscow, Elbaum commuted back and forth more than 200 times to his home in California over the next 25 years. It was during this time, he says, that he was struck with a desire to support MIT.
“When asked about my education by scientists, engineers, or government officials in the Soviet Union, I would tell them that I went to MIT, and their faces would light up,” he says, adding that he was floored by the awe and respect MIT received abroad. “I benefited immensely from MIT: it taught me how to think analytically, and I became aware of the respect it received in the Soviet Union, even in the darkest days of political confrontation with the U.S. People from MIT were so respected by the Soviet scientific and engineering communities that it made me think: ‘Wait a minute, I should start giving back to MIT.’”
BORN IN WARSAW
George Elbaum was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1938. Ten of his 12 family members died in the Holocaust, and only he and his mother survived. As a child during the war, he lived with various families who raised and protected him from the Nazis. At the war’s end he was reunited with his mother. Then, at age 11, he and his mother, who was then working for the Polish state, traveled to Paris, where his mother had been dispatched to establish a chain of Polish bookstores. Soon, his mother defected and she and her son fled to North Carolina, and later to Forest Grove, Oregon.
“My childhood was very unusual,” he says. “During the war, I was kept indoors for my own safety and the safety of the families who were keeping me. In the U.S., I was with kids whose attitudes and backgrounds were totally different from mine, with a language I didn’t understand. My childhood was topsy-turvy, but it was the only life I knew. It’s like if you are born in a fire, it doesn’t seem hot.”
In 1971, Elbaum met his wife, Mimi, an artist who now shows her work in a San Francisco gallery, but who then was an editor in the aerospace consulting firm where they both worked. On their first date, they rode to a restaurant on his motorcycle and on the way back to the office, they had an accident. That unfortunate beginning did not stop their subsequent marriage, but it did stop Mimi from riding with him on his motorcycle.
KEY TO SUCCESS
“Now, most of my philanthropic giving goes to MIT because it is key to my professional success,” says Elbaum, who has made gifts to MIT in the past, including the Whiteman Fellowships in the Department of Physics, which he named after his mother, Pauline Whiteman. He is also the charter member of the Patrons of Physics Society, a group of MIT donors who support graduate students in that department.
“I found to my surprise how much pleasure I get from my philanthropy to MIT and from participation on various committees,” he says, adding that both have put him in contact with many smart people at the Institute.
“Meeting and working with so many bright people at MIT, much brighter than I am, keeps me in my place and gives me great intellectual stimulation. This is a tremendous gift.
“When one has a certain degree of success, there’s really nothing you want that you cannot buy. You can order a car or a yacht, but you cannot order productive interaction with bright people. MIT provides that.”
Elbaum, who has had occasion to talk with students who receive his fellowships says: “I always tell them how much MIT has given to me, and that I hope someday they, too, will be in my position and will fund students because of what MIT has given to them. I really hope that they will remember these words.”