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Mark Baumer MFA’11 dies during barefoot cross-country walk

Poet, activist remembered for environmental advocacy, passionate teaching style

Mark Baumer MFA’11, a poet, author and activist, was fatally struck by an SUV Jan. 21 on the 101st day of his journey as he walked barefoot across the United States to protest climate change and raise awareness for the FANG Collective, an anti-natural gas organization in Rhode Island.

Baumer, 33, was born in Hammond, Indiana, but later his family returned to New England, where Baumer attended high school and Wheaton College, according to an obituary written by his family. Baumer graduated from Wheaton in 2006 and spent two years in Los Angeles, before coming to Brown after his acceptance into the Literary Arts MFA program.

Baumer pursued what he was deeply passionate about, demonstrated by the unconventional and original work he produced and the activism he participated in, according to those who knew him. Baumer was profoundly interested in the intersection of art and politics, specifically how art can advance the edges of politics, said Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain. He had the ability to button up, sit down and work in libraries, but he chose not to do so, as he found deeper meaning in many of his artistic endeavors, she said.

Kevin Powell, digital preservation librarian, shared an office space with Baumer for the past year and said he was fascinated to find out about Baumer’s “rich life” outside of work. He found himself following Baumer’s blog obsessively once Baumer left for his barefoot walk.

“When he was into something, he was into it passionately,” said Sarah Evelyn, head of instructional design at the University Library. “It seemed like he was always moving, always involved, always committed.”

As part of a 12-person Literary Arts MFA program, Baumer taught a section of LITR 0110A: “Fiction I,” a class for which he is fondly remembered by his students for his unorthodox teaching style.

Gale Nelson MA’88, the assistant director of literary arts, said that Baumer was a “lively, active individual.” Baumer was someone who wanted to integrate performance art and fiction, he added.

Life itself was an opportunity for performance art for Baumer as he sought to find nuance in ordinary interactions, Cooper Nelson said. Baumer’s father was a journalist, so that background may have instilled in Baumer a desire to seek out the story behind everything, she added.

For Ana Almeida ’12, who took his “Fiction I” workshop, Baumer’s unique approach was a boon, she wrote in an email to The Herald.

She recalls that on the first day of class he walked in with a white hazmat suit, perplexing the students. He then took a seat and proceeded to read the syllabus verbatim, alienating many of the students in the process — this revealed the kind of person Baumer was, she wrote.

Unconventional activities such as walking downtown on a rainy day, mixing cake batter in class and jumping over railings to reach the Rockefeller Library were just some of the ways Baumer engaged students. These activities, beyond giving inspiration to Almeida for her fictional work, were helpful destressers, she wrote. Class hardly felt like work while it “pushed (her) to look at the world differently.”

Baumer started working for the University Library as a web content support coordinator in 2012. His duties included supporting the website, developing digital and print content and managing social media, Evelyn said.

Evelyn spoke of the writing samples Baumer submitted as part of the job application process. One of the  pieces was from his first cross-country walk in 2010, and it showed his distinctive voice, which had a kind of “playfulness” that Baumer was known for.

As an active member of the library union, Baumer served as the steward and as part of the negotiations team.

He was there for “every rally and protest at Brown and for the larger community as a whole,” said Debra Nelson, senior library specialist at the University. His quirks were evident even at union-related events, as she recalls one Halloween where Baumer showed up to negotiations with an ad-hoc costume made of clothes pins and a loaf of bread spread all over his body.

Baumer is also remembered for his principled yet non-confrontational approach to conflict. At the memorial speech for Baumer, Karen McAnich, business agent at United Service and Allied Workers, recalled an incident at the Renaissance Hotel. At a protest held there due to the firing of a union employee, Baumer got “nose-to-nose” with a police officer. Despite many fears, Baumer kept his cool and the situation was diffused.

At a memorial in honor of Baumer Feb. 4 at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, videos of him gleefully trekking barefoot along the harsh earth proved to be a profoundly bittersweet moment. In heartwarming speeches by his parents and other individuals, the depth of Baumer’s life was evident, as shown in photos and videos capturing all the dimensions of Baumer: a student, a teacher, an activist, an environmentalist, a preacher, a lover, a friend, a son, an employee and a colleague.

He is survived by his parents Mary Tarazewich Baumer and Jim Baumer.

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