Stamp collector Alex Haimann has traveled the world extensively in pursuit of a hobby that first grabbed him in childhood.
In August, he gave billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett an impromptu tour of the nation’s largest annual stamp show, which took place this year in Buffett’s hometown of Omaha, Neb.
Haimann also is one of the world’s authorities on the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa in the 19th century, having amassed hundreds of stamps and other artifacts related to it.
In 2015, at age 29, he was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London (RPSL), making him the first Fellow elected before the age of 30 in decades. The RPSL is the oldest philatelic (a fancy word for stamp collecting) organization in the world, celebrating its 150th year, and has Queen Elizabeth as its patron.
Also in 2015, Haimann became the youngest American to receive membership into an elite club of the world’s 100 most active philatelists begun 20 years ago by Prince Ranier of Monaco (husband of former actress Grace Kelly).
In fact, when it comes to several facets of his life, stamps and otherwise, Haimann, now 33, often has been the youngest to accomplish a particular feat.
But if none of this seems all that impressive, consider this: When Haimann lectures about stamps or speaks to school classes about his collecting hobby, no one falls asleep. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. His enthusiasm for the subject matter seems to be infectious: Students can’t fly their hands in the air fast enough to ask him questions, and they leave the classroom wanting more.
One of Haimann’s closest friends is Mitchell “Mick” Zais, the current deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. He also is an avid stamp collector who subscribes to eight or nine philatelic magazines.
“I’d get in bed at night to read (these magazines) and see all these articles by this guy who was a college student and looked like he was in ninth grade, judging from his picture,” said Zais, 73, whose daughter is the same age as Haimann. “I’d say to my wife, ‘Here’s another article written by this kid, the guy’s prolific.’ So I started following all of his stuff.”
The two eventually met at a stamp show in Pittsburgh and became fast friends. Zais, who had read an article Haimann wrote about using postal artifacts and stamps to teach history to middle schoolers, asked whether he had taught at the collegiate level. Though Haimann said no, Zais, who then was president of Newberry College in South Carolina, invited Haimann to do just that, and he crushed it.
“He can use postal artifacts and stamps to teach about anything,” said Zais, who has traveled with Haimann to stamp events all over the world. “He once taught the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs — that’s its name — using postal artifacts and stamps to tell the story of African-American contributions to U.S. history.”
Connecting young collectors
Haimann’s fascination with stamps began in suburban Detroit at age 7 when a teacher brought some postage stamps into class for a brief geography lesson.
“There were different stamps from different countries all over the world — China, Africa, Europe,” said Haimann, a married father of two young children who lives in Clayton and belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth. “I was so taken with holding something seemingly weightless that came from so far away. It was simple wonderment.
“That kind of feeling is what connects collectors of all ages, genders and backgrounds. It’s that sense of holding history and touching something real from another place and time in your hand.”
From ages 7 to 24, the stamp world, as Haimann calls it, consumed him.
“It was my primary passion, and then it turned into my avocation, kind of intentionally and unintentionally,” he said.
As a college freshman at George Washington University, he was recruited by the Smithsonian Institute to work at its National Postal Museum. At age 19, he became the youngest staff member of the museum’s collections department, working there while continuing his college education.
After five years, he decided to go in a different direction, at least professionally, so he came to St. Louis in 2010 to attend Washington University, where he received his MBA.
“Stamps were a dominating part of my life, and I wanted to participate in the stamp world but with more of a volunteer focus,” Haimann said, explaining that in 2008, he founded the Young Philatelic Leadership Program through the American Philatelic Society.
“I didn’t know anyone within 10 years of my age who collects stamps, but I knew there were people like me out there,” he said. “So I figured let’s band together and build a program, a pathway, a landing for young people who are already passionate about stamps.”
He said many young stamp enthusiasts use the internet to buy and sell, especially eBay, because it’s made collecting so easy. But that also means they are collecting in a vacuum and not meeting other stamp devotees of a similar age.
More than 30 young people from age 16 to 24 have gone through the young philatelic program, which matches them with seasoned stamp collectors.
“Basically, the program helps energize whatever makes them passionate about their stamp collecting,” Haimann said. “If they’re interested in buying and selling, we connect them with a dealer mentor. If they’re interested in research and writing about stamps, they go through an author track. If they’re interested in exhibiting, we help them put their first exhibit together on a subject area that excites them.”
A couple of years before moving to St. Louis, Haimann received an unusual call from his mother who, as it happens, received her MBA and a master’s of health administration at Wash U. Amy Haimann was phoning to arrange a blind date for her son.
Haimann said: “Whenever I tell anyone this story, they are always stunned that I ever agreed to it, or that my mother had the audacity to do it and that it worked.”
Amy pulled off the ultimate Jewish mother move, arranging for her son to meet Sarah Krainen, who was then working at Jewish Family Services of Metro Detroit where Amy was chief development officer.
Haimann, who was still living in D.C., flew in for the date and naturally brought some stamps along.
“All I knew about Sarah was that she was a social worker and had gone to Israel on Birthright,” he said. “So I brought her some stamps from Israel that celebrated mental health and social workers.”
If you think that was a smooth move, fast forward to May 2012. As student body president of his MBA class, Haimann gave the commencement speech at graduation, ending it by proposing marriage to Krainen (find a video of the proposal here). He even got down on one knee and pulled out a ring. She accepted on the spot. Zais was one of the chuppah bearers at their wedding.
Meet me in St. Louis
Haimann is now a partner at a downtown startup called Less Annoying CRM (customer relationship management), where he oversees business development. The company, which makes customer management software for small businesses, was begun 10 years ago by two brothers in San Francisco, but it moved to St. Louis in 2014 after receiving an Arch Grant through its annual competition.
To say Haimann loves his current job is an understatement.
“If this is my last job, I will be one of the happiest people ever,” he said. “If you can work with smart, capable, good people aligned around a singular mission and vision then you are blessed. I am blessed.”
As a result of working and living in St. Louis, Haimann has become a huge booster of the region. He wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it before moving here a decade ago.
His father, Mark Haimann, an ophthalmologist, grew up here and graduated from John Burroughs School. His maternal great uncle, Israel Treiman, came to St. Louis from Russia at age 6. He was the first Jewish American Rhodes scholar in Oxford, England, where he received a doctorate in 1927. In 1939, at age 30, Treiman became the youngest member of the Washington University law faculty and its only Jewish law professor.
Today, Alex Haimann sits on the board of the St. Louis Sports Commission where — no big surprise — he is the youngest commissioner. He also is on the board of Downtown St. Louis.
Marc Schreiber, vice president of marketing and development at the St. Louis Sports Commission, said: “When we talk about attracting and retaining talented young professionals in our community, (Alex) is exactly the kind of person we need here to help St. Louis grow and move ahead. He’s bright, thoughtful, and cares greatly about our region.
“I like to joke about this with Alex: Out of the 140-plus members of our board, I think Alex is the only one who is not a sports fan. But that’s OK, because he still has a deep understanding and appreciation of the positive impact our efforts and sports in general have on St. Louis.”
Haimann contends that his Jewish upbringing and values inform everything he does, from being a husband and father to his job, to his love of St. Louis, to stamp collecting.
“The collecting and stamp part of me feels I am a custodian for our (Jewish) faith and tradition,”said Haimann. “Being Jewish is about living your life in the best way you can for yourself, for your family and for your community. The positive impacts you can make on people create more goodness in the world.”