Jack Baker: Life Begins at 60 . . . and 70 . . . and 80. . .
8/15/2010 1:59:22 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. On the morning of May 15, 2010, Jack K. Baker was just one of hundreds of graduates at Eastern New Mexico University, quietly waiting to receive his Bachelor of Science Degree in History. But Jack was no ordinary graduate. When President Steven Gamble singled Jack out to stand before the crowd of thousands and then announced that this lone figure standing was ENMU’s oldest graduate, every faculty member, graduate, and guest in Greyhound Arena responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation for the quiet, unassuming 80-year-old. For Jack, the degree and ovation were the culmination of a quest for mental, spiritual, and physical renewal that had its beginnings at New Mexico Junior College some 20 years before when Jack decided there was more to life than just growing old.
Jack’s life began and his formative years were spent on a small farm south of Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1937, because of worsening economic conditions, the family sold the farm, headed west in search of a better life, and ended up in a bustling little oilfield town called Hobbs, located in the southeastern corner of New Mexico.
In his early teens, Jack suffered illness so severe that he laughingly claims he “twice heard angels singing “Hello There, Jack; Welcome to Heaven.” Because of the illness, however, he missed three years of school and didn’t graduate from Hobbs High School until 1950, although it was as a member of the National Honor Society and as one of the older graduates in HHS history. A pattern, he insists, was apparently in the making.
During the Korean War, Jack was drafted into the Army, spent two years as a radio operator in an anti-aircraft unit in the North American Air Defense System and, in 1953, “through the beneficence of the GI Bill of Rights,” he became a student at the University of New Mexico. According to Jack, in spite of excellent professors, his grades were extremely erratic, possibly because of his membership in an off-campus group whose members, he jokes, “often pursued interests that were not notably academic in nature.”
In 1958 he married Ellen Wesley. Both were restless, adventurous, and wanted to see more of the world. But, Jack explains, they “did not foresee LBJ and the Vietnam War,” and in 1960 Jack reenlisted in the Army. His major assignment was as an instructor at the Army Finance School, and Jack wound up in Army Finance Offices in Korea; New York City; Germany (twice); Vietnam; and Tehran, Iran, “during the time when the Shah was beginning to lose his grip on the country.”
For a number of years, just as they had hoped, Jack and Ellen did indeed get to see much of the world, traveling extensively in the Far East, Australia, and Europe. Sadly, Ellen died in 1976, and Jack retired in 1979, and for the next ten years, Jack divided his time between New York City and Albuquerque before returning to Hobbs.
In January 1990, at 60 years of age, a bored and restless Jack Baker enrolled at New Mexico Junior College and began taking aerobic classes at Del Norte Fitness Center. More importantly, several key faculty members at NMJC “managed to steer [his] head back into academic channels.” To his surprise, while there he was named to the National Dean’s List four times, became a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and received the NMJC History Award in 1993. Jack graduated Magna cum Laude with his associate degree in 1994.
That same year, he was awarded an academic scholarship at College of the Southwest, a private 4-year college also located in Hobbs. In his second year there, he was awarded a Fellowship to write for the Prairie Dog Post, the campus newspaper, and was later named editor. Jack fondly remembers that his writing “occasionally drew the ire of several faculty members with nosense of humor,” and that he “once was hanged in mock effigy by a group of irate, thin-skinned students.” His outstanding writing, delightful wit, and easygoing manner also earned him a spot as assistant editor on Southwest Creations, the college’s literary magazine. In spite of what Jack laughingly maintains were his “many vicissitudes,” he was a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society; was named to the President’s List twice; and graduated Magna cum Laude with his Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology in 1996.
But Jack was nowhere through with his educational endeavors. Through the combined assistance and cooperation of NMJC’s and UNM’s counseling offices, along with additional course work at CSW, Jack completed the credit hours needed for graduation from UNM. Consequently, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from UNM, also in the summer of 1996.
In 1997, in Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, Jack won fourth place nationally for “Silent Wings,” a poem about the death of his wife Ellen.
During the next several years he took additional courses at both NMJC and CSW and taught Basic Reading Skills at the Lea County Literacy Center. Twice he won first place in the men's over-60 Mile Run at the annual HOST Run for Recycling, and in 2000 transferred his aerobic activity back to NMJC.
Although he has attended numerous schools throughout his long and interesting educational career, NMJC has remained the essential center of Jack's scholastic activity. In Spring 2003, he registered for classes at ENMU through the Hobbs ITV site located in NMJC’s Pannell Library and was able to complete all requirements for graduation from ENMU with a 4.0 GPA, as well as membership in the National Scholars Honor Society. After his memorable graduation ceremony this past May, the ENMU History Department presented Jack with a plaque honoring him as The Most Outstanding Student in History. With his usual tongue-in-cheek commentary, Jack insists that it was “History in the largest sense, of course.”
Today, even with four degrees under his belt and a recent mention of his academic accomplishments in the nationally distributed magazine American Profile, the education of Jack continues. Not surprisingly, Jack has already registered for graduate classes at ENMU for fall. And never one to forget the physical aspect of his education, Jack has once again signed up for both aerobic and yoga classes at NMJC. In his self-confessed quest for mental, spiritual, and physical renewal, Jack Baker has come full circle—with no end in sight.