Where are they Now? Dr. David Baker – A Profile in Townie Pride
Long time educator talks about Townie roots
In 1972, 18 year-old David Baker ran for a seat on the East Providence School Committee and won. Only two years out of high school, Baker became and still is, the youngest person in East Providence to hold elective office. Since leaving East Providence, Dr. David W. Baker has been a teacher and school administrator for 45 years. The Reporter reached out to Baker in February to discuss his career and Townie roots. “I was born and raised in East Providence and we enjoy visiting family there when we can,” said Baker who will turn 69 in July. “My wonderful wife Mary Ann and I have been married for 41 years. We have 7 children and 11 grandchildren. It has been a great run for which I feel blessed,” he said. Baker has been a teacher, director, Assistant Principal and a Superintendent of Schools in a few districts. He has both Bachelor and Masters degrees from Rhode Island College (RIC) and a Doctorate from the University of Vermont. Although working in education for some 45 years, Baker’s early path to success was paved with hard work, faith and encouragement from others.
Growing up in East Providence, Baker never knew his Dad. “I was born and raised in East Providence. My life started in Rumford but once my grandparents died and my mother and I had to move, we were off to the central part of town. We lived on Waterman Avenue one block from Quattrucci's Market. It was good to be in town because I could walk to Central Junior High School and to East Providence High School. My father never lived with us. I didn’t get to know my Dad until later in life. My mother was thirty years old when she had me and she dedicated her whole life to raising me. She passed away when I was nineteen years old. I was at RIC then, the summer after my sophomore year. My whole world fell apart. But because of the strength and example that she had set for me; and a few very good people along the way, I was able to pull it together,” explained Baker. Moving, he wasn’t able to finish out his four-year school board term, serving for just two years. Baker found life difficult at first without his Mom. He struggled and thought of leaving college. “Once my mom passed away and I moved to Providence, through the help of some good folks, I was able to finish college. When she died I had nowhere to live. I ran into the director of student activities at RIC, Dean Dixon McCool, and he would not let me drop out. In fact, he handed me keys to a dorm room and told me that it would not cost me anything. That's how people were back then and I finished school,” Baker said.
Election night in 1972 saw a very spirited local political headquarters. People were waiting for the expected results in the McGovern-Nixon presidential race and many eyes were focused on the school committee campaign of an 18-year-old newbie - David Baker. Political veterans didn’t know what to expect. As the tallies were coming in showing a Nixon win and Claiborne Pell senate win over John Chafee and a Phil Noel win for Governor over Herbert DeSimone, a roar erupted in the room as young David Baker won a convincing victory and garnered over 12,000 votes. A record total which may stand today. Committee members all ran at-large then with no ward seats. Baker made his way through the crowd and down a flight of stairs to tell his mother who wasn’t well enough to come into the building. “Yes, I had to go greet her at the car. I told her I was the top vote getter and that I won. She just started to cry. I know she was proud and I wish she could have seen more of my life after that. I think about that often. Seven children, beautiful wife, 11 grandchildren, my doctorate, and eventually becoming a superintendent. She would have been so proud. She was a single mom with very few resources,” he said.
In addition to a vigorous campaign that he and volunteers waged from Rumford to Riverside, Baker pushed for a bond issue to build a new junior high school to replace the aged Central JHS on Wheldon and Taunton Avenues. The bond issue was approved and a new school was eventually built on Brown Street. It would open in 1977 as the Edward R. Martin Jr. High.
The two years Baker served on the School Board were remarkably busy and critical to Townie history. The 18-year-old committee member was very concerned about education and very vocal at meetings. He initially clashed with then Superintendent of Schools, Edward R. Martin. “At first Mr. Martin and I struggled because I ran (for office) on a platform which included cutting his salary,” smiles Baker. Baker and then committee member Henry Connors had Ed Martin constantly on the run, answering many questions and going through every line in the school budget. The young committeeman also stressed the need to do more for special needs students and families. “But Mr. Martin and I quickly resolved these issues and we soon became good friends. After a trip to the National School Board Convention in Anaheim, California we became closer as a school board and worked well together,” Baker said. The young Baker had never been outside of East Providence and “I was like a kid in a candy shop when we got to see Disneyland during the convention. Mr. Martin was almost like a father to me for those two years. He had the capability of finding out what made a person tick and he would genuinely reach out to help.”
“I loved my time on the board. I look back on it now and I made some good friends including Henry Connors (former school board member), Izzy Ramos (an EPHS teacher at that time and eventual Assistant Superintendent). Many others in the community rallied to support this up-and-coming elected official, although he was so young.
“Jimmy Kanelos was the board chair when I was on back then. I loved Jimmy. He used to take me to the racetrack for no reason other than knowing I probably had never been and didn't have a Dad. I was only 18 but I loved that place. I still stop at racetracks every now and then if we are traveling,” he mused.
Baker, a 1970 EPHS graduate, fondly recalled some others who helped him along while he was in high school. “Along with Izzy Ramos there were teachers that reached out to help, including Bill Stringfellow. Coach knew I was not very good at football but kept me on the team as he was the JV coach. English teacher Adrian Plante was one of the smartest guys I ever met and Paul Colella helped me get a job at the EP Boys Club. It was there that I met club director, George Gennari who became the real male in my life. He taught me a work ethic and he supported my mother's desire that I do well in school. My mother had a tenth-grade education and the father I was to learn about later, had an eighth-grade education. So schooling was not a priority in our family but my mother was the exception and she insisted that my life would be better than hers,” said Baker. “So, I did finish high school and college and will always be a lifelong Townie.”
Baker’s mother came from a large local family. “They were well known in East Providence. My uncle George inherited the Rumford Aquarium from my grandfather and the business was passed on to his son and grandson. It still does well as both wholesale and retail and still has that store on Warren Avenue,” said Baker. “I did, later in life, meet my dad. He also was from a good and large family - the Rocha family. That family had hailed with police chiefs, lawyers, business owners, teachers and state senators. I found out I had two beautiful half-sisters, Dolores and Joanne, and a half-brother, Joseph. I have no regrets.”
Another “little slice of my time in EP,” was the time Baker spent as an EP Central Little League player and coach. “Not only did I play a little bit but I enjoyed coaching and umpiring from the age of 15 right through moving to Providence at 19. I even stayed another year after that. Again, I must mention influential mentors like George Silva, Bobby Mendes, Jack Rezendes and Bob Rodericks, Sr. Little league certainly helped to keep me focused.”
He did his student teaching at Nathaniel Green in Providence and taught at Catholic school for a couple of years. His first public school job was in Central Falls. “The superintendent was John DeGoes who would eventually become a superintendent in EP. Mr. DeGoes was a great man and a great mentor. I taught there for 6 years while I got my master's degree at RIC. I taught math in junior high school and high school. Upon getting my masters I looked around for administrative jobs, but they were few and far between. I finally went into the Catholic school principal business. I landed at the old St Michael's school in South Providence. It was a great experience, but that school closed. Unfortunately, many of the Catholic schools were closing at that time.”
“I sent my resume almost everywhere in New England. I had a beautiful wife and three children at that point. I had three responses from my applications, Wells River Vermont; Tilton, New Hampshire; and Saco Maine. We piled the kids in my B210 Datsun with the dog and took the road trip. We had agreed that I would take the first job offered. That was the principalship at Blue Mountain Union School in Vermont. It was a K-12 school with about 700 kids. I was 32 years old. I was very young but it just felt natural. All those years on the EP school board, listening to Ed Martin, and watching John Degoes, and all those years with George Gennari as my mentor paid off. I had a successful five years and then applied to another district for much more money and a bigger middle school,” said Baker. After 8 years in Barre, VT, he applied for his first superintendency in St Johnsbury Vermont. Baker got the job at 46 years old. “I was young for that job as well but again those early mentors paid off. I spent 10 years in that district.” By then, he had earned a doctorate from the University of Vermont. The district back then had been trying to pass a bond issue to build a new school for over 20 years. Baker used his experience from East Providence and led a move which got the new school built. “It seemed crazy but this poor kid from East Providence with a single mom, has his name on plaques with two new schools (EP and Vermont).
Additionally, Dr. Baker was ordained a permanent deacon in 2007 and has stayed active in the church. “In the old days Faith was a big part of people's lives in East Providence. I never let that go and I never let that experience (St. Patrick’s) in Providence, Rhode Island go.”
Baker is currently the School Superintendent in Windsor Vermont. “I should be retired but we had seven children and we helped all of them with college expenses. I'll be paying that debt off forever,” he laughed. Baker also mentioned a “debt” to East Providence. “I owe so many so much in EP. There are so many others I could mention. I know the place has changed a fair amount, but Townie pride will always live. It was a place where a poor kid from a single-parent home could make it. I'd love to hear from some of my old friends and I can be reached on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I just want the people of East Providence to know how special that place really is. Don't ever take it for granted.”
Dr. David W. Baker – A Profile in Townie Pride.