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Legacy Award - 2014

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Bill Baker

This flyboy always felt a pull to the ground

2014 Legacy Award - Bill Baker

Air Force career circles small-town boy around the world

Bill Baker, 84, sat in his rocking chair in his Saratoga living room after completing the story interview.

A handwritten note from President Harry Truman graced an image of a painting on one wall. A Gerald Ford golf tournament watch was nestled somewhere, and examples of flies he tied for President Jimmy Carter (and which Carter used during a fishing trip in Colorado) were probably hiding out somewhere in his collections.

"Now I have a question for you," this year's Legacy Award recipient said. Baker, along with the other college award recipients, were to be honored at the dean's dinner and on the football field of the UW-Florida Atlantic football game September 20.

"The Department of Defense asked two or three years ago for veterans or retired veterans to begin to wear their medals or their ribbons on Memorial Day, the Fourth July, Veterans Day, and special occasions," the 20-year Air Force veteran said. "This is going to be a very special occasion for me, but I don't want to look like I'm showboating. Do you think it would be all right if I wore them?"

Becoming Country Strong

The question from the survivor of 739 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam was sincere. The boy from small town Clarksville, Tennessee, brimmed with pride when he was finally able to harness a mule team on his uncle's farm, plow a straight line, milk a cow, and toss a 100-pound feed sack over his shoulder. He had joined the Air Force in 1951 and went to Korea in 1952. He would later go to Vietnam after completing an assignment at the Air Force Academy.

Pointing his F-94 up into the Korean skies, sometimes joined by another F-94, to check out the weather on top was absolutely delightful.  And if joined by two F-80s they'd race, and that was just plain fun.

That was there. Flying the crowded East Coast upon his return from overseas, not so much, and he asked to transfer to Alaska.

The 200-mile long string of 63 radar stations - the Distant Early Warning (DEW) system - was being built above the Arctic Circle to warn of impending Soviet nuclear airstrikes. He'd take off from Fairbanks and fly to Nome and then roam the Bering Sea.

Usually not alone."We'd fly up and down the Bering Sea, and we'd look into the eastern tip of Siberia, where there was nothing to see and we always had a shadow on our wingtip, either a Russian Badger or Bear," he recalls."They were doing the opposite. They were looking to the western edge of Alaska where there was nothing to see, either, but a little farther into Alaska they were building that early warning radar line."

Vietnam Tour

Years later, flying became more dangerous. He'd flown fighters before, but in Vietnam he was navigator (his eyesight was not as strong as when younger) and sometimes pilot of C-130s. That's where he got most of his combat missions."The dangerous part of flying there was take-off and landing," he recalls."Because there was always a Charlie at one end of the runway or the other to catch you belly up going in or out."

Later, Baker would rise out of his rocking chair and point out a photograph of a twisted mass of metal carried on a flatbed truck. That was the F-94 he crashed - and walked away from without a scratch.

Letter Surprises Baker

One more service-related story, and this one describes the roots of his giving to education.

"I guess I've tried since I was a young lieutenant to be generous," he says."I was sitting at my desk in Alaska in 1956 and in came a letter from a lady in Germany. It had been translated for her, and she said some money I had given to the Marshall Plan after World War II had been given to her. Her husband had been killed during the war, she had two children, and the German Mark was worth nothing. It was amazing somehow or other she got a gift from Lt. Bill Baker. It practically saved her life. That caused me to always try to be generous."

Decide for yourself whether or not he should wear those medals on view to thousands on the Memorial Stadium Video Board.

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, Tennessee. 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 about writing 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 the bridge the west side of the Snowies and has been in Saratoga since.

Purposeful Generosity

A heartfelt note he received while serving in Alaska (see accompanying story) 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 agricultural 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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University of Wyoming

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Laramie, WY 82071

Phone: (307) 766-4133

Fax: (307) 766-4030

Email: agrdean@uwyo.edu

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