John Shearer: Remembering Howard Baker

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - by John Shearer

By 3:30 p.m. Monday, the number of people walking through the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville had slowed to a trickle.

Like the larger crowd that had come beginning at 11 a.m., they were there to pay their respects to the late Senator Baker, who was lying in repose after his death last Thursday at the age of 88.

“He was a good man,” said one man, who was wearing a blue collar-style University of Tennessee work shirt as he walked toward the center.


A few feet down Cumberland Avenue, at First Tennessee Bank, a Knoxville police motor squad was waiting to help escort his body back toward Huntsville in Scott County, a good hour’s drive northwest. There, Tuesday’s private funeral will be held at First Presbyterian Church, with a number of national office holders expected to attend.

Throughout the five-hour visitation and greeting of family members at the center, several military personnel stood as still as statues around the casket of the former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan.

Senator Baker, as well, had a consistent demeanor that has drawn praises in recent days due to his likability and ability to bring differing people together.

He was considered a friend to many Tennesseans, and for a few who went to McCallie with him more than 70 years ago, he was an old friend.

A couple of old classmates contacted on Monday remember that he was well liked as a student there.

However, an image of him as a future national political leader had not quite developed, they recall.

But he was already developing quite a few images as a budding photography enthusiast at that time.

“He was a camera bug,” recalled 1943 classmate and longtime Chattanooga banker Gerry Stephens. “He had that (camera) with him everywhere or nearly everywhere.”

Senator Baker became almost as well known in adulthood for his hobby of photography as U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander has been for playing the piano. In fact, Senator Baker’s standard line was, “Politics is my hobby; photography is my profession.”

Even into his later years, he continued to enjoy taking pictures, and many of them from his career are on display at the Baker Center in Knoxville.

And this interest evidently started or was nurtured at McCallie, where he was the photography editor during his senior year of the school newspaper, the Tornado, and the school yearbook, the Pennant.

According to some information forwarded by McCallie director of development Penny Grant, Senator Baker had entered McCallie in 1941 as an 11th-grade boarding student from Huntsville. This was at a time when a number of Knoxville area students attended both McCallie and Baylor. His lawyer father no doubt probably desired a better education for him than that found in the Scott County schools at the time.

McCallie then also had a military curriculum, which likely helped prepare Senator Baker to enter the U.S. Navy shortly after graduation.

But because he did not enroll at McCallie until his junior year, he was unable to rise above being a private.

“He wasn’t an officer candidate because he hadn’t been there long enough,” remembered retired business executive Gordon Smith Jr., another of only a small number of McCallie classmates still living. “We would tease him every now and then.”

His short stay at the school also likely hampered him from holding any elected class office.

But the two class members still remember him warmly.

“He was certainly sociable with everybody,” remembered Mr. Smith.

Added Mr. Stephens, “He wasn’t any particular star, but he was real personable and friendly.”

One other main extracurricular activity in which Senator Baker took part at McCallie was as a member of the varsity soccer team. Mr. Stephens played with him on the team and remembered that he was a pretty good athlete.

At that time when the sport was still in its fledgling stages in America, basically only prep schools played, and Baylor and McCallie would often have to travel to other cities for games. McCallie during that era also played the sport during the winter season, and Mr. Stephens remembers playing a game against the University of Asheville when the temperature was about 20 degrees.

After Mr. Baker left McCallie and rose in politics before retiring, he continued to stay connected to his old prep school as an occasional school speaker and as a member of the board of trustees. In 1986, a Howard H. Baker ’43 Chair of American History was established, with Dr. Duke Richey currently holding the position.

Mr. Stephens remembers when the class held its 50-year reunion in 1993 at the Mountain City Club, and Sen. Baker, in somewhat of a pleasant surprise, flew down from Washington to join the group. He even offered some brief remarks to his classmates.

“He talked about what McCallie meant to him and that he was happy to be back with his classmates,” Mr. Stephens remembered.

Another McCallie graduate from a later generation also had a chance to know Senator Baker, but as an office worker.

Wes Brown Jr., a member of the McCallie Class of 1974, was an intern for Senator Baker for a year beginning in 1980. His job while in his early 20s was basically to be a glorified gopher and run errands or help accommodate visitors to the office, he recalled.

However, he had a unique perspective of American democracy that would have likely made any top official or CEO envious.

Mr. Brown was there when Senator Baker went from being Senate minority leader to majority leader, and he remembers a lot of compromises and deals made through frequent visits by such Democrats as Senate minority leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“I loved it,” he said, adding that Sen. Baker’s office was right off the Senate floor. “It was a fun experience watching him. He knew how to make people work together.”

Mr. Brown, who developed a great fondness for the senator, also remembered that he was always quite busy at that time.

“He was always on the go,” he said. “He was working all the time. If not, he was taking pictures all the time. He had his own dark room and developed all his pictures.”

Mr. Brown thought about driving over to Knoxville from his home in metro Nashville, where he is an insurance broker, but was unable.

However, he has been traveling back in time in his mind in recent days thinking about getting to observe the Tennessee and American political legend up close.

“He was truly an amazing man,” Mr. Brown said.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net.

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