In a recent interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, Doris Baker said, "Lady luck as well as the Great Depression have taken me through the 96 years of my life.
"I wanted to be an artist," she continued, "but believed that teaching first grade would provide me with a steadier livelihood. Thus, I took a teaching position at a U.S. Army Dependent School in West Germany and found that writing about my travel adventures, living among the Green Berets, and owning a couple of high-performance cameras, changed my life to wonderful."
Baker, a former resident of Williamsburg, now lives in Virginia Beach. She was born in Montana and grew up on her great-grandfather's farm in southern Michigan, in an 1836 house overlooking grain fields and rolling hills. She dreamed of faraway places too exotic for a country mind to imagine. But in 1950, she learned about a teaching position at a U.S. Army base in Bad Tolz, West Germany, and for the next 30 years she served there as a school principal.
Doris Baker (Photo provided)
Bad Tolz happened to be the first overseas American military base for the special forces. Her experience of living among the Green Berets served years later as the basis of her book, "The Originals." Albeit labeled as fiction, it reflects with great accuracy and insight on the lives, loves and exploits of that group of that elite, derring-do military fraternity. She has been called the only woman who has ever written an authentic tell-it-as-it-is book about the Green Berets.
Following her first journey from America to Germany on a merchant ship, Baker never stopped traveling. The result of her voyages was a travel book, "I'll Let You Know When We Get There." In 48 chapters and dozens of photographs, she captures "a special era after World War II when history changed gears and shifted into overdrive."
After her retirement, while living in Williamsburg, Baker perfected her painting skill and her work earned exhibition space in numerous art galleries. So did her photography that one critic called, "funny, poignant, absurd and sometimes prophetic." In addition to writing books and essays, encouraged by Sofia Starnes, the current Poet Laureate of Virginia, Baker started writing poetry. She soon became a published poet. And now, at age 96, the Swem Library of the College of William & Mary is showcasing in its Rotunda Gallery a selection of Baker's Cold War era photos from Europe, Asia and Africa in its Rotunda Gallery.
"Doris Baker's collection and exhibit ties nicely with William & Mary's effort to expand its global reach," said Jay Gaidmore, Marian and Alan McLeod director of the Special Collections Research Center, at the Earl Gregg Swem Library of the College of William & Mary.
"Many of our students study abroad, and through the Reves Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014, we are a leader in the study of international relations and foreign policy," he said. "Since we have not yet implemented the ideal system to make these photographs available for viewing online, we decided to have an exhibit of selected images to show other countries like 30 to 60 years ago and raise awareness and inspire more in depth study of the collection."
He pointed out that Baker's photographs are an excellent complement to the many travel diaries and letters and published travelogues that are already part of William & Mary's collections.
"We hope this exhibit will encourage more donations of similar material," he said.
Doris Baker seems to be content. "My cameras are gone. I don't spill water colors anymore on the carpet. Thankfully, my photo collection of a turning point in history will have a long life in Swem Library," she said.
Now, that the Lake Placid Public Library has a climate-controlled archive, the Library should make a concentrated effort to solicit material from local residents that would reflect not only on the past, but also on the present. One day, this would serve as source-material to historians.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.