Giving back

 

Liz Wood

Bill Baker will be receiving the Legacy Award from UW at Saturday's football game.

Most evenings you'll find Bill Baker sitting in front of his Saratoga apartment basking from the warmth of the chiminea glowing with fire.

The retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, former Halliburton recruiter, and college assistant dean has a great view of the playing fields across Bridge Street to watch evening competition play out.

This year's Legacy Award recipient, Baker and his wife, Jeannette, who died in August last year, established the Bill and Jeannette Baker Agriculture Scholarship.

Farm to air back to country

The green fields of play brings Baker's life full circle from an Air Force career and work with Halliburton back to his agricultural beginnings before he left his little hometown of Dickson, Tenn. Head southwest of Nashville on I-40 for 36 miles to TN-46, turn north, drive five miles and you'll arrive.

His grandparents and favorite aunt and uncle had farms there. "In my early years, I spent as much time as I could there," he recalls. There was a small dairy farm, and his uncle raised hay, calves, and pigs.

"When I was first old enough to hand milk a cow or after that to harness a mule and hitch him to a scratcher plow and plow a straight line - those were two really big things, and I was quite concerned with becoming a farmer," says Baker. "When I got to where I could also pick up a 100-pound sack of feed, I knew then I was a big boy."


His family would move to Clarksville, about 30 miles away, where his father would open a barbershop, but anytime Baker had time off from school or during summers, you'd find him back at the farm.

Ag in his blood

But that wasn't what really propelled Baker to a degree in agricultural economics years later.

Showing promise as a writer, he was approached as a senior in high school by the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, the oldest paper in the state of Tennessee and published continually since 1808, to cover sports in the county. He'd also get a press pass to the Vanderbilt University football games in Nashville and sit in the press box with the veteran sports writers "...wondering how the hell that kid got up here," Baker says, and laughs.

The paper then asked him to fill an agricultural page every week that published not just in that newspaper but others in the county.

"We need you to start working with the home demonstration agent, the county agent, and soil conservation people," Baker recalls they said. "I got to know a lot of people involved in agriculture, not just those, but the farmers and ranchers. It was just a very good time to develop an interest in agriculture."

Always continues

education

He melded his Air Force service with education - he'd take classes at night while teaching at the ROTC program at Michigan State to earn a foundations in education degree. After he retired in 1972, he had made contacts that landed him as assistant dean of admissions at Texas Tech University. And like in Michigan, he took classes at night and earned his agricultural economics degree. That led him to later be recruited by Halliburton.

The oil services group wanted him to recruit college graduates to work as engineers.

"I remember he told me you can have the best job we can imagine and we'll give you $1.5 million (budget) a year to go to those engineering schools you think would have the kinds of graduates we'd like to have. There was a nice pay raise and a damn good job," he says, and again laughs.

He visited land-grant universities, including UW, "because a lot of those had first-time college grads. I could usually hire an agricultural engineer," he says. "Production companies wanted chemical engineers, petroleum engineers to work in the oil fields. There was nothing better than an ag engineer. He knew something about mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, he always had a good work ethic, was accustomed to a calendar and watch, and working in all kinds of weather."

Eventually lands

near Saratoga

But the boom fell out in the mid-1980s, and he accepted early retirement. That led him to the Vee Bar Guest Ranch west of Laramie to see if he could live and retire in Wyoming.

After a year, he knew. "My brother was a member of the Old Baldy Club here in Saratoga," Baker says. "He said, "Bill, you're country, and Saratoga is country. You would be a good fit in Saratoga."

So, after a 16-horse trailer was loaded with his belongings at the Vee Bar, he crossed to the west side of the Snowies and has been in Saratoga since.

Purposeful generosity

A heartfelt note he received while serving in Alaska started a life of generosity. He helped a Vee Bar employee obtain a degree and later another employee who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in hospital management.

Baker then met and married his wife, Jeannette, who already had a heavy-duty relationship with UW.

Her late husband had bachelor's and master's degrees from UW, she had a degree from UW, her three children had degrees from UW, one grandchild is attending UW, and another will soon be at UW.

Wed the UW relationships and his ag interest, and they created the scholarship.

Explains Baker, "I have tried to support others who were in education and particularly in agricultural education because I think we are going to have a time when there is going to be too many people and too little land to feed them and too few educated farmers and ranchers, and if I can help ward that off, I'd like that to be my legacy."

 

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