Ev Baker (1901-1950)
Father, friend, and mentor as remembered by his sons
How do we remember someone? For those who did not know Ev Baker, MIT’s Dean of Students from 1947 to Aug. 1950, it may be simply that a building bears his name or a picture hangs on a wall.
For almost 70 years, a portrait of Dean Baker has greeted residents and guests as they enter Baker House. Although most of his contemporaries are long-since gone, I believe that many would have said the photograph, although a good likeness, did not represent the man that they knew and loved. A new portrait, painted by Ester Lovett in 1952, two years after his death, has now replaced the more formal picture.
The purpose of this essay is to share some memories of my father with hope that these memories will give the new portrait more meaning.
My father was a multi-generational man, comfortable with a five-year old and a Prime Minister. I was five years old when my father introduced me to the natural world. We climbed Mt. Chocorua in New Hampshire, an easy hike for an adult but a challenge for a five-year-old. Dad understood that the day had to be an adventure, not a climb. We explored the softness of mosses, the lacy beauty of a fern, the smoothness of stones in a stream bed, the critters that lived under every rock, and the roughness of the granite rocks at the summit. That experience was the beginning of my love affair with the mountains.
As a camp counselor, Dad introduced hundreds of boys at camps in New Hampshire and Maine to canoeing, archery, and backpacking. We learned that, even when wet, birch bark can be used to start a warming campfire on a cold and rainy day.
We learned that everyone you meet on a trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was a friend. Dad’s warm greeting always elicited a response and often a conversation. I thought that my father must know everyone in the world.
In my teen years, Dad arranged visits to a steel mill, a factory that converted a white-hot steel ingot into reels of wire cable, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I learned that men had to work hard in difficult and dangerous jobs. He was instrumental in providing homes and jobs for the Nisei being relocated from western states’ internment camps and invited them to hold Buddhist services in his church.
When he became Dean of Students at MIT, he immersed himself not only in the life of the students, but also in the science. He was a curious man, and his curiosity gave him a perspective about life that was unusual at the time. He learned and shared with me how paper was made, how a Van de Graaff generator worked, and the photography of Harold Edgerton. In 1949, he told me that he wanted to show me something that would “change the world.” We visited the Whirlwind II computer, housed in a two-story mechanical engineering lab converted into a computer room. He was prescient in his recognition of the role that computers would play in the future.
He also actively collaborated with Alvar Aalto during the design and construction of what was initially called Senior House. He spent hours at the job site suggesting changes that would make the building more welcoming.
Ev Baker did not take himself too seriously. He had a sense of humor and often told stories of when he was humbled by his experience. I recall standing next to him after a Sunday service in a small summer community on the New Hampshire coast. A “proper Bostonian lady” (she had a hat and white gloves) stopped to tell him how much she had enjoyed his sermon and also the same sermon the week before at another town and then again, the week before in Holderness, NH. He could tell that story and laugh about it.
In Cleveland, he did not avoid delivering sermons on sensitive subjects from the pulpit. The series entitled If I were a Negro, If I were a Jew, and If I were a Catholic elicited heated debate within his congregation and in the larger community.
Ev Baker taught me and many others many lessons, lessons that were to serve us well as adults. Among them: always leave the campsite in better shape than when you found it; it is not how little you carry in your pack, but how much; on a steep climb, small steps are better than big ones; and last, be willing to take risks, but don’t tell your mother.
One of Dean Baker’s colleagues, Tom Sherwood, Dean of Engineering wrote: “Those whose life he touched gained something which they will not lose. Our thoughts, decisions, and actions will continue to be influenced for good, often unconsciously, by the better standards of living with people which we gained through our contacts with him. The perception that this is so gives both an intelligent and beautiful meaning to ‘life after death.’ There is something of Everett Baker in the character of each of us who knew him.”
Dr. Karl Compton, Chairman of the MIT Corporation, wrote: “He was a rare combination of spiritual leader and personal friend. Though his time with us was tragically cut short, his influence on the character of this Institution and the lives of its students will always be with us.”
The portrait that now welcomes residents and guests in Baker House captures the essence of Ev Baker. He loved life, he loved the mountains, and he loved people — all people. His life’s journey was cut short, but his lessons, his wisdom, his thoughtfulness, his kindness, and his understanding made a difference. May they continue to do so.
“That’s the last time I will ever see my Dad.” These words, scarcely thought, barely spoken, and hardly heard brought a two-second pause before Sandy said, “Your serve.” He and I had been volleying badminton, awaiting my Dad’s stop for a goodbye hug as he headed for a trip such as had been regular during the three years since he became Dean of Students at MIT. Camp was over, and my mom and I returned home to Wellesley the following week. A few days remained before my Dad’s scheduled return from chairing a conference in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, where he presented MIT’s contribution to a discussion of international students in graduate education in American universities. I heard the phone ring in my mother’s bedroom shortly after dawn. It was a reporter from the Boston Herald who awakened her, seeking a statement on the news of Dean Baker’s death in a TWA plane crash in Egypt.
A blindsided trauma is dramatically more injurious than one that comes with an antecedent “look out” on a ski slope or a sudden turn of fate. Never in my life has such a tiny signal been productive of such a huge impact as was given me by my premonition: like an enzymatic transformation of crippling sorrow into activation of muscular intention. The warning attenuated my grief and fashioned a perception that my father’s spirit was alive within me.
How did MIT’s vast institutional soul confront the unprepared loss of just one fairly recent member of its organization — especially one who was a Dartmouth graduate with a Harvard degree in divinity — as minute and foreign to its culture as was my premonition to my psyche? What had my father done, or what had he been during his brief tenure, that cultivated a gesture so generous as giving his name to MIT’s first dormitory? Was MIT’s consciousness moved to acknowledge changes Everett Baker had evoked in its institutional spirit? Analogy suggests that the vector may have been love. Yes, but that explanation fails to identify a feature of MIT’s psyche that was darkened by World War II. Perhaps it was more a matter of nudging MIT’s spirit out of its wartime funk by helping to revive a funny sensibility that naturally inhabits the world of subatomic particles, subtle forces, astronomical anomalies and premonitions.
As I understand the history, the mission my dad was given had to do with the humanization of MIT’s ethos. Ev Baker was, indeed a humanist. He was not a jokester, but he had a robust appreciation for humor as celebrated with the founding of Techs-a-Poppin in the year of his arrival. (https://tinyurl.com/bakerpoppin). Going back seven decades in my memory, the MIT students brought laughter to our dining table. I recall one trip to New Hampshire when we dropped off a fledgling MIT student comedian to make his way through the summer resorts in exchange for laughter. Among the gifts for which my Dad was honored in the naming of Baker House, one must have been the animation of MIT’s sense of humor.
The portrait of Everett Baker that has welcomed visitors to Baker house has always seemed to my brother and me to reveal an unfamiliar side of him with its stiffly formal presentation. What he brought to MIT was, we believe, much more a spirit that was alive in his love of hiking mountain trails. We are delighted to have the portrait painted by a woman we called Aunt Esther, wife of my namesake Uncle Sid, chaplain of Yale for the many decades of his close friendship with my father.