Mundheim Shuffles Careers

From law to diplomacy to academia, Harvard graduate stays fresh

The seven years that Robert H. Mundheim ’54 spent at Harvard College and Harvard Law School between 1950 and 1957 was the longest period of time that he’s spent in any one place since then.

Four years after graduating from HLS, Mundheim briefly joined a law firm before taking a stint with the Air Force in Berlin, serving on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), playing a lead role in negotiating the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran, two decades in various academic institutions and a position on the team that rebuilt Salomon Brothers.

But despite his accomplishments, Mundheim speaks modestly. HLS Professor David Shapiro ’54, who shared a room in Holworthy with Mundheim during their freshman year at Harvard, describes him as one of the most humble people he knows.

“I am amazed at how many things he has done over the course of his career,” Shapiro says. “But he has always been very modest and understated.”

Mundheim says he has been driven to restlessness by a desire to explore.

“I always look at my life as you do a number of different things—that’s really terrific, you have a good time at it, you learn something and then you do something else,” he says.

THE START OF THE ROAD

Mundheim was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany in 1933, just as Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party was rising to power. In January of 1939, Mundheim’s family managed to escape Germany and immigrate to the United States.

Mundheim attended Exeter before matriculating to Harvard in 1950, where he pursued a degree in American History, was active in Philip’s Brooks House Association (PBHA) and played freshman baseball and other sports.

“When I was in college that first year I thought of him primarily as an extraordinary athlete and prep school jock, but then I found out he was making fantastic grades,” Shapiro recalls.

During one summer, Mundheim travelled to Germany with PBHA to teach elementary students.

“It was thought that in educating young people we might still have something to offer,” Mundheim says.

After graduating from Harvard College in 1954, Mundheim fulfilled his childhood dream of attending Harvard Law School (HLS)—“Since I was probably ten or so I wanted to go to law school,” he says—and, as an added bonus, he would continue on with his close friend and former freshman roommate, Shapiro.

After graduating from HLS, Mundheim received one of the University’s ten Frederick Sheldon travelling fellowships. The fellowship paid for his travelling expenses for a year, and Mundheim more than took advantage of the opportunity, working at a bank in Distledorf and a law firm in Athens before turning to Italy for the art museums and Turkey for a challenge.

“I spent some time in Turkey to try and see if I could navigate in a country where I had no language abilities,” he recalls.

A CAREER INTERRUPTED