Serena S. Baum, who had worked in the civil rights movement and was a staunch advocate of women’s rights and later became vice president of Vanns Spices, died of Alzheimer’s disease March 17 at the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson. The former Roland Park resident was 88.
“Serena was a good, warm woman with a wonderful, wry sense of humor,” said United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey, a Roland Park neighbor. “She was just a wonderful woman.”
The former Serena Hand Savage, daughter of William Lyttleton Savage, who was secretary-treasurer in the religious book department at Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Serena H. Savage, former chair of the Morris County (New Jersey) Welfare Board, was born in New York City and raised in Morristown, New Jersey.
She was a graduate of The Peck School in Morristown, and after graduating from Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey, she entered Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in French in 1955.
Mrs. Baum continued her education at the Sorbonne Université in Paris in an accelerated program that was part of the Middlebury College language program, earning a master’s degree in French in 1956.
Following graduation from Middlebury, she worked from 1956 to 1962 for the Committee of Correspondence, on whose board Dorothy I. Height, the American civil rights and women’s rights leader, was a member. The agency’s mission was leadership training for women overseas.
“She worked directly with Ms. Height,” said a son, Jonathan Baum, of Brooklyn, New York, in a telephone interview.
In 1962, she married Morton “Jerry” Baum Jr., and in 1967, the couple settled on Midvale Road in Roland Park, where they raised their three children.
“We lived across the street from Serena and Jerry on Midvale Road, and they gave wonderful neighborhood cocktail parties,” Judge Gauvey said. “Where we lived was a little cul-de-sac, and it had a very warm feeling, and she was a major contributor to that feeling.”
Janet Marie Smith and her husband, F. Barton Harvey III, were friends since 1998, when they settled on Midvale Road.
“Serena was an amazing woman and a real force, and we enjoyed being her neighbor for decades. She was just a delight, and we called her the mayor of Midvale Road,” Ms. Smith said. “She knew everyone’s story or at least something about the people who lived in the neighborhood, and when she was speaking to you, she made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world.”
Ms. Smith added: “She knew all the tricks about living on Midvale Road, and she willingly passed them on. Baltimore is filled with wonderful people and Serena was in the top tier. It was an honor to be her neighbor.”
Mrs. Baum devoted much of her free time as a board member of the League of Women Voters and the YWCA, for which she was presented the Eleanor Hood Gross Award in 2002 and the Ellen Clapp Award in 2004.
She was also a member of the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle, which sought to use collective giving and collaboration “to empower women and their families in the Greater Baltimore area to achieve self-sufficiency,” according to the organization’s website. She was also a member of the Hamilton Street Club.
In 1981, when Vanns Spices, a company that provides spices for professional chefs and home cooks, opened, Ms. Baum was one of the original employees.
“It began as a kitchen table operation that Serena helped grow by managing the operations and contacting food industry celebrities and gaining them as customers,” wrote Mr. Baum in a biographical profile of his mother.
The Morning Sun
“I knew her for 15 years,” said Mick Whitlock, a former Vanns president who is now company chairman. “She was the go-to person at Vanns and was the glue that held it together. She was our purchaser and planner, and I learned a great deal from her. She took the job as a challenge and got it done. She was a joy to work with and just a great person.”
Mrs. Baum, who was vice president of operations, retired from the Windsor Mill company in the early 2000s.
After the death in 2013 of her husband — , an executive at L. Greif & Bro., the Baltimore clothing manufacturer, and a founder and executive director of the Fund for Excellence — she moved to Blakehurst.
For more than 70 years, Mrs. Baum looked forward to her family’s summer vacation at Squam Lake, New Hampshire, where she visited with her sister and extended family and friends.
“Serena had a charismatic personality and liked to joke around,” her son wrote. “She was known for her quick wit, excellent sense of humor and a desire to meet new people — she never met a stranger. She took great pleasure in that.”
Mrs. Baum was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer at 5603 N. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. May 24.
In addition to her son, she is survived by another son, Matthew Baum of Chatham, New Jersey; a daughter, Susan Finizio of Pittsburgh; a sister, Susan Savage Speers of Center Sandwich, New Hampshire; and seven grandchildren.