by Len Lear
Joe Balmos, 52 (“but I feel like a youthful 51”), a Chestnut Hill resident, has been a volunteer for four years at the Penn Museum, 3260 South St., which is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity.
Balmos does tours and special programs around the Worlds Intertwined: Etruscans, Greeks and Romans’ suite of galleries at the museum. He has a love and passion for ancient Greek and Roman culture, particularly the militias, and he has developed his own arms and armor station that delights visitors of all ages.
In honor of Rome’s 2,768th birthday Saturday, April 18, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the museum, guests will be treated to explosive gladiator fights and interactive legionary tactical demonstrations, mythology gallery tours, toga wrapping demonstrations, laurel wreath-making craft tables, short lectures and “pop up” presentations on ancient Roman history and life. Balmos will be on hand to enlighten and entertain. We put the following questions to Joe last week:
Why do you volunteer at the Penn Museum?
I’ve loved the museum since my first visit in the early ’70s when it was known by the locals as the “University Museum.”
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. My father, a career soldier, is from Kensington here in the city, and my mother is Korean. I grew up around the world, and eventually we settled in New Jersey just across the river as Kensington in the ’70s was not the cool hipster place it seems to be now.
Where did you go to college, and what did you major in?
My first major in 1984 was “Near East Culture and Archaeology.” It took me 16 years and five colleges to finish my degree in Liberal Studies in 2000.
What kind of work did you do over the years?
From 1980 until 2006 I was off and on in the military. First with the U.S. Marine Corps on active duty as an infantryman and finally in the U.S. Army Reserves as a Civil Affairs Team Leader specializing in refugees and displaced persons. My most recent periods of military service, after 9/11, took me to Central America, Bosnia and Iraq, and finally as a civilian member of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. Between my military service in Iraq and my work in Afghanistan, for six months I was employed by the United Nations in Baghdad as the representative of the International Organization for Migration and helped set up the U.S. Embassy’s program to expedite the evacuation of Iraqi nationals who worked directly for the U.S. Military and government agencies. After my U.N. experience, I commuted to Washington, D.C., where I worked for a large U.S. State Department contractor on projects focused on West Africa. With that in mind, when people ask me what I did before I retired, I usually say I was a prison guard in New Jersey for almost 20 years. Before that job I just hitchhiked around Europe and the Middle East.
Are you retired now?
Yes, and taking care of my sons, as my wife works for the Central Bucks School District as a high school French teacher.
How long have you lived in Chestnut Hill?
Just two years, before that for seventeen years I lived on the other side of the creek in Andorra and visited often.
What do you like the most and dislike (if anything) about living in Chestnut Hill?
What I like the most are the smart and eclectic people who live on my street. What I like least is the constant loud beeping of the small buses that have to back into the senior center across the street from me. I know it’s the law, but from 6:30 a.m. to the late afternoon it never seems to stop, and this has caused many families to move away from the area. Most of the storefronts “Down the Hill” are vacant, and most new stores leave or go out of business after a short time. We all feel it is due to the constant beeping of the small buses and the dangerous traffic conditions they cause by having to either back into or out of the senior center onto busy Germantown Avenue. The lack of any parking at the senior center is slowly destroying the quality of life on this part of the Avenue, and that’s a shame as the folks who work there are nice, the small bus drivers are nice, and the seniors need a place to go outside their homes. It’s just a very poorly designed facility that should never have received permission to open.
What are the names and ages of your spouse and children?
My wife, Marie-Laure Chemin, and I have two sons, Victor, 6, and Sammy, 20 months.
How did your passion for ancient Roman and Greek culture develop?
As a child I can recall reading as much as I could about ancient Greece and Rome. My father has no Greek heritage, so it was odd to him that I developed this passion. I can’t point to any one reason or event that caused it. It’s more complicated than that as I see a lot of bad in those societies as well as good.
To the best of your knowledge, what is the state of education today about ancient Western cultures?
I believe that America’s diversity is its greatest strength and why we have been as successful as we have been, but I do think we need to teach kids that much of what we have today that is good — democracy, rational inquiry, trial by a jury of our peers, a sense of seeking what’s over the horizon — comes to us from ancient Greece and nowhere else.
How often do you do tours?
I try to do four or five tours a month if possible, at least one school visit per month such as the Crefeld School here and as many special events as the museum needs me for. Each museum tour is only 50 minutes, so it’s a challenge to get it right for each group as no two groups are the same.
What is the most interesting aspect of the Roman Empire to you?
Easy; they conquered Greece and were then conquered culturally by the Greeks. My interest is focused on both Greece and Rome.
What were the worst aspects of the Roman Empire?
Again, easy; slavery and no really good means of passing on political power except by force of arms. We here in the U.S. have become used to one group of politicians being replaced by another every few years in a peaceful and orderly manner, so we don’t realize how rare that is in this world. The Romans never solved that problem, transferring power, and it caused endless civil wars that sapped all their strength. Those civil wars caused tremendous suffering among the common people.
More information about Saturday’s events at www.penn.museum or 215-898-4000.