The first time I saw Howard H. Baker, Jr., in person he was at the meat department at Scott Foods in Oneida with one hand on his buggy while the other hand was hefting a package of hamburger from the cooler. The year was 1964, I believe.
The last time I saw him, just a few weeks ago, he was at home in a wheelchair eating a chocolate bar with a big chocolate smile on his face.
I was 16 years old when I first encountered him, 66 when I had my last encounter with him. Fifty years is a long time, but I was fortunate enough to get to know him, first through all the publicity he generated in his first successful race for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and then, a few years later, after I had joined the ranks of those in the news media whose job it was to keep tabs on prominent people like Howard Baker.
I was working as a greenhorn reporter for the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville when Baker was campaigning for fellow GOP candidates. Their bus pulled into a parking lot where a a small crowd had gathered. Baker said a few words and I snapped a few photos. Just when I had gathered up enough nerve to pose a question, he and his fellow Republicans got back on the bus and were on the road again.
A couple of years later, while I was working at the Cleveland Daily Banner, I was chosen to cover Baker’s appearance in Athens, I believe it was.
He was the guest speaker before a two-county (McMinn and Bradley) gathering of Chamber of Commerce directors. It was a luncheon meeting and among the first two to arrive at the venue were the Senator and myself.
I introduced myself and told him I was originally from Oneida, and he informed me that wasn’t too far from the center of the universe (Huntsville). I thought he was making a joke, but fortunately, I didn’t laugh out loud. Fortunately, because I would continue to hear those same words spoken by the same man countless times through the years to come.
Since he had arrived early, he asked someone if there was someplace he could go to rest for a while before the crowd began to arrive. He was shown a storage area, where chairs and tables were stacked up all around the room. He pulled out a chair to sit in, and then dragged another one close enough to put feet up. He left the door open.
I waited several minutes but kept an eye on him from the dining room. I finally decided that I’d sneak in and get what I envisioned would be a classic photo of Senator Baker napping.
I got my camera ready and tiptoed into the room without making a sound. I lined up my subject, who had all the appearance of napping, and was just getting ready to snap the shutter when he opened one eye, looked straight at me and said, “Don’t you dare!”
I didn’t. But now I wish I had been just a little quicker on the trigger.
While still working in Cleveland, I was chosen to cover an event in my home county, and made the trip to Huntsville to cover a Scott County GOP rally where two nationally-known Republicans — Howard Baker and Ronald Reagan — both of whom were considering a run for President, would be speaking.
I really didn’t get to know Senator Baker, however, until I moved back home to Oneida a few months later and, with a little help from my friends, started up the Independent Herald. Our first issue was in June of 1976.
Actually, it was Baker’s first cousin, James Toomey Baker, who made it possible for me to get to know the Senator. J.T. was an avid and accomplished photographer as was MCTS (“My Cousin the Senator,” as J.T. referred to him) and the two of them got together from time to time to take to the great outdoors in search of wildflowers, birds, beavers, or just crumbling structures to photograph. And, at my friend J.T.’s invitation, I would tag along.
In the years to come I’ve covered Baker’s appearances at various functions in and around the county, from Kiwanis meetings to GOP Rallies and everything in between.
The highlight of that aspect of our relationship was a flight to D.C. when he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
After Baker gave up politics and returned to “the center of the universe,” we would often run into each another and swap a few words at different events.
All that changed when Reagan asked him to be his Chief of Staff and back to Washington he went.
As his tenure as Chief of Staff was winding down, he asked his cousin J.T. to come up to Washington for a few days. J.T. asked me if I’d like to make that trip with him and, of course, I could not say no.
It was a memorable experience, following Baker around the West Wing of the White House, up and down the halls, downstairs to the dining area, out to the Rose Garden for an impromptu interview with a hoard of reporters, then down to the briefing room for a much calmer hoard of reporters and even into the Oval Office itself.
Early on a Friday afternoon at the White House, Baker introduced us to President Reagan and his wife Nancy, shortly before they boarded a helicopter and flew off to Camp David for the weekend.
Baker also took us out to eat in an upscale restaurant in Georgetown. Upon leaving, the Senator asked me how I liked it and I stuttered around for a moment and finally said, “Honestly, Senator, I prefer Burger King for lunch,” which generated a hearty laugh that ended with his response, “Me too.”
I considered it then, and still do today, the trip of a lifetime.
So many memories of fleeting conversations and chance meetings come to mind when I remember Howard Baker. Other than a few brief interviews over the years, the only sit-down conversation I ever really had with him was when J.T.’s widow, Irene Baker, passed away just a few years ago.
He wanted me to assume the leadership of the local Historical Society and keep it up and running the way Irene had. I had to say no. I had to tell him I was burned out after 27 years of work in the Historical Society, that I had grandchildren I wanted to spend time with along with a half dozen other excuses that just came flooding out.
I was a disappointment to him, I know, but he didn’t hold a grudge, and was just as friendly, just as talkative in the few times our paths crossed in the years since.
Howard Baker was a hard working U.S. Senator, an excellent White House Chief of Staff, and a popular and successful U.S. Ambassador to Japan — none of which kept him from calling Scott County home and returning here as frequently as possible throughout his political career and permanently after it came to a close.
He will be missed by the nation, by the state and, most of all, by those with whom he shared “the center of the universe.”