Edmund “Ed” Hajim was born in 1936 in Los Angeles, three years after his parents had met and married in St. Louis, Missouri. Hajim’s father was Syrian immigrant who had arrived in the United States with his mother in 1900.
“He spoke no English when he arrived,” Hajim says, “but my father was bright and hardworking. He took some technical courses and at one point worked as a communications specialist at RCA. He was also entrepreneurial and enjoyed business. He invested on margin in the stock market and became quite successful, but he lost everything when the market crashed in 1929.”
Unable to find work, Hajim’s father decided to go to California in 1933. “My father had a difficult time accepting his financial losses,” says Hajim. “He had a hard time finding work and was actually unemployed when I was born. Apparently, we moved around the country quite a bit while my father looked for work. Eventually, my mother found our situation and my father too difficult, and she filed for divorce when I was three. She and I moved back to St. Louis, and my father was given visiting rights on Sundays. On one of those early Sundays, my father took me out for a visit, and we drove to Los Angeles. He later told me that my mother had died in childbirth.”
For part of the next two years, Hajim and his father lived in motel rooms in California’s Mojave Desert. Babysitters were hired to watch Hajim while his father worked on power plants. For one six-month stint, Hajim’s father owned three tuna fishing boats. Hajim was five when World War II erupted, and his father’s venture collapsed when Japanese fishermen were interned. Because of his father’s background, his father was given a commission in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Over the next five years, Hajim lived in several foster homes; although he did not see his father during that time, he did receive many letters and postcards. “My father loved me very much, but he felt that going to sea was the only way he could make a living,” he says. “In those years, I was in four different foster homes, and they ranged from very bad to very good.”
When the war ended, Hajim’s father returned to the East Coast. “My father sent a plane ticket to the Catholic agency responsible for me, and I flew across the country on my own,” he recalls. “I was 10 years old. I brought all my possessions with me, including a pet turtle, which died in my father’s pocket on our way home from the airport. That summer we lived in the YMCA in New York, and I spent my days wandering around, going in and out of museums and parks while my father worked.”
Looking back on those early years, Hajim remembers being very angry. “I had a temper and was very unhappy, but I knew my father loved me, and I think that’s what got me through,” he says. “I certainly discovered that I’m a survivor.”
At the end of that summer, Hajim and his father moved to a Coney Island hotel. Unable to find a steady job that would keep him near his son, Hajim’s father finally went back to sea as a marine communications officer; the son was left on his own. The plan was that Hajim would enter a foster home in September. When that did not work out, Hajim’s father contacted a Jewish welfare agency, and the boy was placed in an orphanage in Far Rockaway, where he stayed until he was 15.
“The orphanage wasn’t bad and provided community and consistency,” says Hajim. “I really liked the local school, which was within walking distance of the orphanage. I got involved in sports and became a student leader. I don’t know exactly what happened when I was 15, but I guess I was too old to stay in that orphanage, and because my father was not cooperating, I became a ward of the state. I was then moved to an all-boys orphanage in Yonkers. Although there were rites of passage, the place was well run and very supportive. I flourished there, played varsity baseball and basketball, and was a good student.”
Hajim worked from the time he was a young boy. His first job was selling newspapers at a trolley stop in California. In high school, he worked for a local grocery store and spent summers as a soda jerk. He also had daily duties in the orphanage.
Whenever the ship was in port, Hajim would meet with his father. Although Hajim usually enjoyed those encounters, their relationship became strained. “I always had this feeling that I was going to do well,” he says. “I wanted to go to college, and I began applying for scholarships. I tested for a naval ROTC scholarship, and I was thrilled when that came through because it paid for my books and tuition, plus $50 a month. That scholarship changed my life.”
Hajim attended the University of Rochester and majored in chemical engineering, but his freshman year was socially difficult. He had decided to bury his past and not tell anyone about his previous life. “I guess I was ashamed and embarrassed to tell others how I grew up,” he says. “But once I was in the classroom and on the playing fields, I discovered that I could compete, and things began to turn around for me.”
In his sophomore year, Hajim pledged a fraternity and chaired—among other things—the university’s finance board, its engineering council, and his own fraternity. During his junior year, Hajim founded a successful humor magazine. He also worked part time throughout college.
When he needed a typewriter, he wrote to a manufacturer, offering to sell its products on campus in exchange for use of a typewriter for his own needs. He worked in the college laundry, in the library, and as a resident assistant. At various times he also held jobs at the post office, at fast-food restaurants, and on a railroad, and he spent one summer on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In 1958, Hajim graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, was commissioned an ensign, and reported for naval duty.
Upon his U.S. Navy discharge in 1961, Hajim moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to work as an applications research engineer for Hercules, Inc. At night, he attended business classes in Philadelphia. A year later, he applied to Harvard Business School (HBS) and was accepted. Following his graduation with distinction from HBS, Hajim held several investment and management positions with Capital Group and E. F. Hutton & Co. In 1977, he joined Lehman Brothers as a member of the board, served as president of Lehman Securities, and in 1980 became chairman and CEO of Lehman Management.
In 1983, Hajim joined Furman Selz LLC as chairman and later became CEO. Over the next 14 years, the firm grew more than tenfold. It was sold to Xerox in 1987, bought back in 1992, and subsequently sold to ING Group in 1997. After the sale, Hajim became co-chairman of ING Barings Americas, was chairman of ING Furman Selz Asset Management LLC, and later was chairman of ING Aeltus Group before starting his own investment partnerships. In 2009, he became president of Diker Management LLC, an employee-owned investment management firm.
After his father died in 1971, Hajim discovered a suitcase, but he put it in a closet and did not open it until 24 years later, when he was 60 years old. He was shocked to learn that his mother had not died in childbirth and that his parents had, in fact, divorced. Hajim hired a detective agency to try to locate his mother.
After 57 years of separation, he learned that his mother was still alive and living in St. Louis. He wrote her a letter asking if she would want to meet him. When they finally spoke, Hajim learned that his mother had remarried, had had another son, and was now widowed. “After that first meeting, she became a part of my family. I called her every Sunday and am so grateful I got to know her before she died at age 93,” he said.
Hajim said there are four parts to having a successful life: family, personal growth and integrity, work, and community. “I have a wonderful wife of nearly 50 years and a family that includes three children and eight grandchildren,” he says. “I owe most of my success to my wife and best friend, Barbara, who earned a master’s degree in counseling and has had to use every bit of her capability on me. My work has been my passion and joy. And now I’m giving back—especially in the areas of education, because my collegiate institutions made such a powerful impact on my life.”
After 20 years as a trustee of the University of Rochester, Hajim became chairman of the university’s board of trustees in 2008, giving the school $30 million—the largest single donation in its history—in support of engineering and applied sciences. The Hajim family and its foundation have made other generous donations to education, healthcare, arts and culture, and conservation and preservation. Hajim has provided more than 200 scholarships to deserving students at the University of Rochester, Harvard Business School, University of Vermont, University of Denver, Brunswick School, Middlesex School, and Westchester Community College.