Background: The following article is reprinted from Reader’s Digest. It is about an outstanding young man who ran cross country and track for Manzano High School and the University of New Mexico. Years later, I had the honor of coaching the track and cross country teams at Manzano High School, as I took over for John’s coach when he retired. My daughters attended the elementary school that was named after him. I never knew him personally, but saw him compete in the greatest dual meet I have ever witnessed. While attending high school, our track coach arranged for us to travel to Albuquerque to watch the UNM Lobos take on the University of Southern California Trojans. That meet left a burning desire in me to compete at the collegiate level in track. It is much easier for me to tell this story on these pages than in person, as I have never read this story aloud without crying.
The future looked bright to 24-year old John Baker in the spring of 1969. At the peak of an astonishing athletic career, touted by sportswriters as one of the fastest milers in the world, he had fixed his dreams on representing the United States in the 1972 Olympic Games.
Nothing in Baker’s early years had hinted at such prominence. Slight of build, and inches shorter than most of his teen-age Albuquerque pals, he was considered “too uncoordinated” to run track in high school. But something happened during his junior year that changed the course of his life.
For some time, the Manzano High track coach, Bill Wolffarth, had been trying to induce a tall promising runner named John Haaland – who was Baker’s best friend – to join the track team. Haaland refused. “Let me join the team,” Baker suggested one day. “Then Haaland might, too.” Wolffarth agreed, and the maneuver worked. And John Baker had become a runner.
The first meet that year (it was 1960) was a 1.7 mile cross-country race through the foothills east of Albuquerque. Most eyes were focused on Albuquerque’s reigning state cross-country champion, Lloyd Goff. Immediately after the crack of the gun, the field lined up as expected, with Goff setting the pace and Haaland on his heels. At the end of four minutes, the runners disappeared one by one behind a low hill inside the far turn of the course. A minute passed. Two. Then a lone figure appeared. Coach Wolffarth nudged an assistant. “Here comes Goff,” he said. Then he raised his binoculars. “Good grief!” he yelled. “That’s not Goff! It’s Baker!”
Leaving a field of startled runners far behind, Baker crossed the finish line alone. His time – 8:03.5 – set a new meet record.
What had happened on the far side of that hill? Baker later explained. Halfway through the race, running well back of the leaders, he had asked himself a question: am I doing my best? He didn’t know. Fixing his eye on the back of the runner immediately in front of him, he closed his mind to all else. Only one thing mattered: catch and pass that runner, and then go after the next one. An unknown reserve of energy surged through his body. “It was almost hypnotic,” Baker recalled. One by one he passed the other runners. Ignoring the fatigue that tore at his muscles, he maintained his furious pace until he crossed the finish line and collapsed in exhaustion.
Had the race been a fluke? As the season progressed, Wolffarth entered Baker in a number of other events, and always the result was the same. Once on the track, the modest, fun-loving teen-ager became a fierce, unrelenting competitor – a “heart” runner who simply wouldn’t be beat. By the end of his junior year Baker had broken six state track records, and during his senior year he was proclaimed the finest miler ever developed in the state. He was not yet 18.
In the fall of 1962, Baker entered the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and stepped up his training. Each morning at dawn, spray can in hand to ward off snapping dogs, he ran through city streets, parks and golf courses – 25 miles a day, all in addition to daily varsity workouts. The training told. Soon, in Abilene, Tulsa, Salt Lake City, wherever the New Mexico Lobos competed, “Upset John” Baker was confounding forecasters by picking off favored runners.
In the spring of 1965, when Baker was a junior, the most feared track team in the nation belonged to the University of Southern California. So when the mighty Trojans descended on Albuquerque for a dual meet, sportscasters predicted doom for the Lobos. The mile, they said, would fall to USC’s “Big Three,” Chris Johnson, Doug Calhoun and Bruce Bess, in that order. All had better times for the mile than Baker.
Baker led for one lap, and then eased purposely back to fourth position. Rattled, Calhoun and Bess moved uneasily into the forfeited lead. Johnson, wary, held back. In the far turn of the third lap, at the same moment, Baker and Johnson moved for the lead – and collided. Fighting to stay on his feet, Baker lost precious yards, and Johnson moved into the lead. With 330 yards to go, Baker kicked into his final sprint. First Bess, then Calhoun, fell back. On the final turn it was Johnson and Baker neck and neck. Slowly, Baker inched ahead. With both hands above his head in a V-for-Victory sign, he broke the tape – a winner by three seconds. Inspired by Baker’s triumph, the Lobos swept every following event, handing the demoralized Trojans their third-worst defeat in 65 years.
Upon graduation, Baker considered his options. There were college coaching offers, but he had always planned to work with children. There was also his running. Was he, he wondered, Olympic material? In the end, he accepted a job that would allow him to pursue both ambitions – he became a coach at Aspen Elementary School in Albuquerque, and at the same time renewed his rigorous training with an eye to the 1972 Games.
At Aspen, another facet of Baker’s character emerged. On his playing fields there were no stars, and no criticism for lack of ability. His only demand was that each child do his or her best. This fairness, plus an obviously sincere concern for his student’s welfare, triggered a powerful response. Youthful grievances were brought first to Coach Baker. Real or fancied, each was treated as if at the moment it was the most important matter in the world. And the word spread: “Coach cares.”
Early in May 1969, shortly before his 25th birthday, Baker noticed that he was tiring prematurely during workouts. Two weeks later, he developed chest pains, and one morning near the end of the month he awoke with a painfully swollen groin. He made an appointment to see a doctor.
To urologist Edward Johnson, Baker’s symptoms were ominous, requiring immediate exploratory surgery. The operation confirmed Johnson’s fears. A cell in one of Baker’s testicles had suddenly erupted in cancerous growth, and the mass was already widespread. Though Dr. Johnson didn’t say it, he estimated that even with a second operation Baker had approximately six months to live.
At home recuperating for the second operation, Baker confronted the grim reality of his world. There would be no more running, and no Olympics. Almost certainly, his coaching career was ended. Worst of all, his family faced months of anguish.
On the Sunday before the second operation, Baker left home along for a drive in the mountains. He was gone for hours. When he returned that evening, there was a marked change in his spirits. His habitual smile, of late only a mask, was again natural and sincere. What’s more, for the first time in two weeks he spoke of future plans. Late that night, he told his sister, Jill, what had happened that clear June day.
He had driven to Sandia Crest, the majestic two-mile-high mountain peak that dominates Albuquerque’s eastern skyline. Seated in his car near the edge of the precipice, he thought of the extended agony his condition would cause his family. He could end that agony, and his own, in an instant. With a silent prayer, he revved the engine and reached for the emergency brake. Suddenly a vision flashed before his eyes: the faces of the children at Aspen Elementary – the children he had taught to do their best despite the odds. What sort of legacy would his suicide be for them? Shamed to the depths of his soul, he switched off the ignition, slumped in the seat and wept. After a while he realized that his fears were stilled, that he was at peace. “Whatever time I have left,” he told himself, “I’m dedicating to the kids.”
In September, following extensive abdominal surgery and a summer of cobalt treatments, Baker reimmersed himself in his job. And to his already full schedule, he added a new commitment – sports for the handicapped. Whatever their infirmity, children who had once stood idle on the sidelines now assumed positions as “Coach’s timekeeper” or “chief equipment watcher” or “foul-line supervisor,” all wearing their official Aspen jerseys, all eligible to earn a “Coach Baker ribbon” for trying hard. (Baker made the ribbons himself, at home in the evening, from material purchased with his own money).
By Thanksgiving, letters in praise of Baker from grateful parents were arriving almost daily at Aspen (more than 500 would be received there and at the Baker residence before a year had passed). “My son was a morning monster,” one mother wrote. “Getting him up, fed and out the door was hardly bearable. Now he can’t wait for school. He’s the Chief Infield-Raker!”
“Despite my son’s assertions, I could not believe that there was a superman at Aspen,” wrote another mother. “I drove over secretly to watch Coach Baker with the children. My son was right.” And this from two grandparents: “In other schools, our granddaughter suffered terribly from her awkwardness. Then, this wonderful year at Aspen, Coach Baker gave her an ‘A’ for trying her best. God bless this young man who gave timid child self-respect.”
In December, during a routine visit to Dr. Johnson, Baker complained of a sore throat and headaches. Tests confirmed that the malignancy had spread to his neck and brain. For four months, Johnson now recognized, Baker had been suffering severe pain in silence, using his incredible power of concentration to ignore the pain just as he had used it to ignore fatigue when he ran. Johnson suggested painkilling injections. Baker shook his head. “I want to work with the kids as long as I’m able,” he said. “The injections would dull my responsiveness.”
“From that moment,” Johnson later remarked, “I looked upon John Baker as one of the most unselfish persons I’ve ever known.
Early in 1970, Baker was asked to help coach a small Albuquerque track club for girls from elementary through high-school age. Its name: the Duke City Dashers. He agreed on the spot and, like the children of Aspen, the girls on the Dashers responded to the new coach with enthusiasm. One day Baker arrived at a practice session carrying a shoebox. He announced that it held two awards: one for the fleetest runner; and one for the girl who, though never a winner, wouldn’t quit. When Baker opened the box, the girls gasped. Inside were two shiny gold trophy cups. From then on, deserving Dashers received such cups. Months later, Baker’s family would discover that the trophies were his, from his racing days, with his own name carefully burnished away.
By summer, the Duke City Dashers were a club to contend with, breaking record after record at meets throughout New Mexico and bordering states. Proudly, Baker made a bold prediction: “The Dashers are going to the national AAU finals.”
But now a new problem plagued Baker. His cobalt treatments and frequent chemotherapy injections brought on severe nausea, and he could not keep food down. Despite steadily decreasing stamina, however, he continued to supervise the Dashers, usually sitting on a small hill above the training area, hollering encouragement.
One afternoon in October, following a huddle on the track below, one of the girls ran up the hill toward Baker. “Hey, Coach!” she shouted. “Your prediction’s come true! We’re invited to the AAU finals in St. Louis next month! Elated, Baker confided to friends that he had one remaining hope – to live long enough to go along.
But it was not to be. On the morning of October 28th, at Aspen, Baker suddenly clutched his abdomen and collapsed on the playground. Examination revealed that the spreading tumor had ruptured, triggering shock. Declining hospitalization, Baker insisted on returning to school for one last day. He told his parents that he wanted the children to remember him walking tall, not lying helpless in the dirt.
Sustained now by massive blood transfusions and sedation, Baker realized that for him the St. Louis trip was impossible. So he began telephoning Dashers every evening, and didn’t stop until he had urged each girl to do her best at the finals.
In the early evening of November 23, Baker collapsed again. Barely conscious as attendants loaded him into an ambulance, he whispered to his parents, “Make sure the lights are flashing. I want to leave the neighborhood in style.” Shortly after dawn on November 26, he turned on his hospital bed to his mother, who was holding his hand, and said, “I’m sorry to have been so much trouble.” With a final sigh, he closed his eyes. It was Thanksgiving Day of 1970, 18 months after John Baker’s first visit to Dr. Johnson. He had beaten the odds against death by 12 months.
Two days later, with tears streaming down their cheeks, the Duke City Dashers won the AAU championship in St. Louis – “for Coach Baker.”
That would be the end of the John Baker story except for a phenomenon which occurred after his funeral. A few of the children of Aspen began calling their school “John Baker School,” and the change of name spread like wildfire. Then a movement began to make the new name official. “It’s our school,” the kids said, “and we want to call it “John Baker.” Aspen officials referred the matter to the Albuquerque school board, and the board suggested a voter referendum. In early spring of 1971, 520 families in the Aspen district voted on the question. There were 520 votes for; none against.
That May, in a ceremony attended by hundreds of Baker’s friends and all of “his” children, Aspen School officially became John Baker Elementary. It stands today as a visible monument to a courageous young man who, in his darkest hours, transformed bitter tragedy into an enduring legacy.
“The Race to Death” By John Baker
Many thoughts race through my mind
As I step up to the starting line.
Butterflies thru my stomach fly,
And as I free that last deep sigh,
I feel that death is drawing near,
But the end of the race, I do not fear.
For when the string comes across my breast,
I know it’s time for eternal rest.
The gun goes off, the race is run,
And only God knows if I’ve won.
My family and friends and many more
Can’t understand what it was for.
But this “Race to Death” is a final test,
And I’m not afraid, for I’ve done my best.
(This poem was written by John Baker during his freshman year at the University of New Mexico, six years prior to his death).