KANKAKEE — As a Harvard University law school graduate, David Baron had the entire country, if not the world, laid out in front of him.
He could have more than likely worked at any law firm in any major city in the United States.
He settled on one in Chicago, the high-powered firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where he worked from 2009 to 2013. He then left the firm to work from 2013 to 2017 as an assistant corporate counsel for the city of Chicago.
The money was great. Living in the City of Broad Shoulders also was fantastic. But there was something missing.
It was Kankakee.
The 35-year-old, 2002 graduate of Bishop McNamara Catholic High School wanted to come home.
So, in July 2017, Baron did just that. One year later, July 2018, he and his wife purchased a home in Kankakee’s Riverview Historic District neighborhood. He lives about two blocks from the residence where he grew up in the household of Dennis and Debra Baron.
“This was not the path laid out when you graduate from Harvard Law School. The idea is you go to work for some big law firm,” he said from the fifth-floor office in the Executive Office Centre where he now practices law in his father’s firm, Deck & Baron.
“A Harvard law degree isn’t worth much if you don’t do what you want to do. The idea of contributing to the revitalization of this area, particularly Kankakee, was a real attraction to me.”
As of result of his past accomplishments, his desire to return home and his willingness to already become an active member of the community, Baron is the Daily Journal’s 2019 Young Citizen of the Year. The award goes to community contributors younger than 40.
Baron, who earned a bachelor’s from the University of Notre Dame in 2006, admits if he had gazed at a crystal ball after walking across the Harvard graduation, returning to Kankakee would not have been a image he would have expected to see.
“I would have certainly expected to see myself in the Midwest. But no, not here. I never foresaw myself moving back to Kankakee.”
‘A comfortable leader’
The path Baron has traveled thus far might surprise some, but Ken and Michelle Barrie, the leaders of the Kankakee area Catholic youth group, would not be among them.
“He was a bridge builder of sorts, a connector,” Michelle said. “He was someone who led others. He built his peers up.”
Baron traveled on two of the group’s December mission trips to Mexico. He also was part of the first mission trip to the Pembroke and Hopkins Park area.
It was a trip to Pembroke where Baron developed his connection with the community. Years later, Baron penned the book “Pembroke: A Rural, Black Community on the Illinois Dunes.”
Much of the book’s inspiration came from the mission trip.
The fact Baron came home to practice law did not surprise Ken or Michelle.
“This is home to him. The big cities are great but there is a spiritual connection he has made here and what he does is not all about a paycheck,” she said. “What he does if for the good of others.”
Ken noted Baron’s parents passed their social justice genetics onto their children.
“When we heard he was coming home it didn’t surprise me,” Ken said. “I’m glad for him. He is where he wants to be. It’s going to be great having him here.”
Although he would seem to be a prime candidate for entering the political arena, Baron said there are no immediate plans for such an endeavor.
His father will be ending his long tenure as a Kankakee 6th Ward alderman this May. David Baron resides in the 2nd Ward with his wife, Anya, and will soon be welcoming their first child.
He’s already involved in some city projects. He served on an advisory committee, which helped create plans for the Schuyler Avenue streetscape. He’s also involved in the Kankakee Development Corporation. He’s in attendance frequently at the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County meetings.
A growing trend
Second Ward Alderman Mike O’Brien said Baron is part of a trend of where bright young adults are coming home and investing themselves here.
“People didn’t leave because they wanted. The jobs weren’t here. That’s changing. Companies are now investing here so this could be a growing trend,” O’Brien said.
The two men now are neighbors.
“Dave could be anywhere doing anything, but he chose to come back here and practice law. That says there is opportunity here,” O’Brien added. “And I was thrilled he was coming to Riverview specifically.”
Small law firm
The Chicago law firm where Baron began practicing law had more than 500 attorneys.
While such a firm can provide opportunity, it also can limit opportunity. The chance of Baron walking into a Cook County courtroom — or any other courtroom for that matter — was rather remote.
He was well aware of that reality.
“I was involved in a big law firm and in big government. I appreciated those times. But I wanted to be in a smaller firm. That was something really appealing to me,” he said.
He loves the fact people walk into his office and sometimes are not even seeking legal advice. Sometimes, he said, they are just seeking guidance or advice on life matters.
“Sometimes I think you’re not able to make your mark in a large community,” he said.
So, he began a conversation with his new wife about leaving the big city. He thought perhaps a more intimate community could be found between Chicago and Kankakee.
He said it was Anya who said if Chicago was not for them and Kankakee is where his heart lied, then why not return home?
“I have to give her credit for that,” he said. Small-town living is new to Anya. Until purchasing their home here, the smallest community she had ever resided in was Tuscon, Ariz., population 535,000.
Like father, like son
Baron’s mother, Debra, couldn’t be happier, but also is not totally surprised by her son’s decision. She said Dennis faced the same decision when he graduated with his law degree from the University of Michigan.
Dennis chose the same path. He wanted to return home.
“It’s a tribute to the people who make up Kankakee. He saw the opportunity for a good life here,” she said of Dennis.
“We instilled a sense in our children that in a community the size of Kankakee that you really can make a difference and the effect you make can go well beyond Kankakee,” she said.
She believes David watched the life his father has led and he likes what he has witnessed.
“He wants to be there for dinner, raise his children and be a part of the town,” she said. “Life is about the people you surround yourself with. That’s what makes the quality of life.
“Did I expect David and Anya to come back? Let me put it this way: I was not surprised.”
David thought back to his high school days. He was a goalie on the soccer team and a member of the baseball team.
His experience on the baseball diamond — more correctly in the dugout where he spent most games keeping score — taught him well.
“Riding the bench was very formative for me. It taught me you can be a vital part of a team without being its star.”