The 1940s and ‘50s in rural America was a wonderful time to build a life. Friends and neighbors became family, pulling together and holding one another up through good times and bad.
John Baker, a friend to all, is gone from us now, laid to rest this past week. Known as the blue bird man, having tended 80 blue bird boxes throughout the county, he is credited with bringing the population of blue birds back from the brink of extinction in this area.
Featured in the magazine Bird & Bloom, he was that and so much more to so many. He was, in his quiet, thoughtful way, the reigning gentleman of our community.
In 1946, when school opened in September, Johnny was a popular senior at Jeromesville High School.
My father, a freshman that year, was a lost soul whose world turned upside down with the sudden death of his dear mother just months earlier.
The reality of this loss, pushing a young boy to the brink of despair, with a father who retreated in to dark depression, meant this oldest child found himself bearing the weight of single-handedly keeping the home and the farm going.
Under his wing
Johnny, who so easily could have turned a blind eye to this wounded soul, instead determined he would take the freshman under his wing.
John talked to the boy about joining FFA, bringing up the merit of the organization time and time again, until he had convinced the 14-year-old to become a part of something positive and good.
It was a symbolic step forward, and it was one which helped heal a broken heart.
It also forged a friendship that would last and grow beyond generations. A man who led by example, Johnny spent his life doing the right thing. He taught us what love looked like, quietly, without fanfare.
He and his sweetheart married and built a lovely home near the farm where Johnny had grown up. One day, in 1956, while Johnny’s wife, Alda, was out working in the yard, their beautiful 2-year-old daughter wandered in to the road and was hit by a car.
Nothing in life could possibly be more crushing. My father, married with three beloved baby girls of his own at that time, felt helpless in the face of this vast sorrow befalling such good people.
Years later, Johnny spoke of it, just once, to me. He had stopped by to check on our blue bird boxes and to tell me we finally had a nest with eggs.
I took him a glass of lemonade and we sat near the blue bird box, watching the male blue bird keep watch on us. My son was very ill, our hope fading. Johnny offered his heartfelt empathy. He told me he understood a parent’s heartache, describing his sorrow of losing a beloved daughter.
“But, you find it in yourself to forgive, to go on, because that’s what we are meant to do, and God gives you the strength to do it.”
The couple drew even closer, raised two sons, and later welcomed four grandchildren.
Alda suffered a stroke and Johnny lovingly cared for her at home until her death in 2000. He often would bring her to my home when we had a litter of puppies we knew she would enjoy.
Unable to speak, her eyes would brighten when I handed her a newborn pup, or once, an orphaned kitten.
Johnny always thanked me for making Alda’s day better. As life unfolded for us, one of Johnny and Alda’s grandchildren, Jared, became a friend to my son.
Through life’s challenges, Jared was the one true, solid, loyal friend as Cort fought his way back to a life of strength and purpose.
On some mighty dark days, though, Jared was the friend who always called, always cared, always showed up.
The strength of doing the right thing, the kindest thing, had been mirrored from 1946 in to a new century, from one gentleman to another.
We are put here to find strength in unity, to give loving support to those placed here with us for a time.
There will be chapters of joy and moments of great sorrow, forever through time. Through the shaded shelter of the unfolding generations, we are blessed by one another. It is through this unity we are meant to find a way to be happy if we can.
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