Being invited into the home of Albert Einstein to share tea with the world’s most famous physicist would seem a top-of-list experience to tell family and friends. But Tom Baker didn’t mention it until, much later in life, he was interviewed by an elementary school pupil about his service during World War II.
His own children wondered why he’d never told the tale to them. “Well,” he deadpanned, “you never asked.”
Thomas Parker Baker, who died May 24 at age 97, did have much to share with his own three kids — and six grandchildren, eight great-grands and two great-great-grands — and they didn’t have to ask him for it.
He taught them how to make soda fountain drinks and marinate pork ribs in Shasta black cherry pop. He taught them how to catch fish and hunt quail, how to drive a stick-shift car, sing silly songs and to play dominoes. More importantly, he demonstrated how to treat people kindly and fairly, how to make people laugh, how to enjoy a loving marriage for almost 72 years, and how to raise kids with a combination of lessons and letting go.
Waiting to join the military
Tom was born in Springfield on Thanksgiving Day 1924. As a lad, he worked for the Morton Drug Store, 450 E. Commercial St., pedaling his bicycle around north Springfield making deliveries.
“He especially remembered delivering to the nursing students who were in training at Burge (Hospital),” says eldest daughter Beverly Zieres of Springfield. “They would call up and order Cokes and cosmetics and whatnot. He was so young that he was embarrassed to be in their dormitory, so he would barely open the door and just hand in their stuff.”
He overcame that shyness around girls later when he met Midge Brayfield as they attended Central High School (Class of 1941). First, however, came the war. But because he was only 16 when he graduated, Tom had to wait more than a year before he could join the military.
“All his classmates were going into the service, but he had to wait until he turned 18,” says Beverly. “He said that was the hardest thing he ever had to do.”
Tom eventually signed up with the Navy and, noting his boyhood exposure to the pharmacy business, he was made a pharmacist mate — which also made him a corpsman for the Marine Corps. He was assigned to a 1,000-bed fleet hospital at Pearl Harbor, working in a surgery ward where five to 10 operations were performed on a typical day. He repeatedly requested to be assigned to a Marine rifle company headed for battle but, Beverly says, “the surgeon he worked for kept turning him down because he wanted to keep Dad as his assistant.”
Eventually, Tom was chosen for officer training, and he was dispatched to pre-midshipman school at Princeton University in New Jersey. That was where he met Einstein. But more about that later…
Penny candy at the pharmacy
The journey from Hawaii to the mainland was aboard a hospital ship carrying Marines wounded in the early-1945 battle to rout the Japanese army from the island of Iwo Jima. Tom was assigned to care for 12 orthopedically handicapped casualties during the voyage.
He told his family that one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences of his time in the military occurred when the ship was approaching San Francisco. He painstakingly carried the patients, one by one, topside so they could see the Golden Gate Bridge with their own eyes. Today, his children point to that episode as an example of their father’s thoughtfulness and resourcefulness and dedication to doing the right thing.
After mustering out of the Navy, Tom earned a degree from the Kansas City University School of Pharmacy and was licensed as a pharmacist in 1950. He and Midge had married in 1947. They moved to Sedalia where Tom became a partner in a neighborhood pharmacy. As the kids started arriving, the drug store figured prominently in the lives of Beverly and her next-youngest sibling, sister Jan.
“Our mother decided that we shouldn’t have a lot of candy, so she said we could only have candy on Fridays,” recalls Beverly. “The elementary school we went to was just down the street from Dad’s pharmacy. At the time, they had penny candy — and you could get five or 10 pieces of some kinds of candy for a penny back then. We each got a quarter and a little brown paper bag, and we would fill it up on Fridays after school. Our friends loved to come with us because they got a bag and a quarter, too.
“It’s one of my most precious memories,” says Beverly. “And I have friends who still talk about going to Dad’s pharmacy when we were kids.”
Jan – she’s Jan Bahner now, living in Sedalia – agrees: “I have a friend who just recently was saying how she remembered going to the drug store and being treated to what she called ‘decadent amounts of candy.’ She said she considered our dad to be the Sugarplum Fairy.”
Road trips and family memories
The sisters, and their younger brother David, who lives in Springfield, also remember family vacations. “Two weeks every summer,” says Beverly, visiting from coast to coast — California to Rhode Island over the years, enjoying the oceans, Disneyland, Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and many national parks.
“Dad bought a station wagon but it didn’t have air-conditioning. We took one vacation when we went through the desert, and the three of us kids were sprawled in the back seat sweating. Mom had washcloths that she put in a cooler that we used to try to cool off some. After that, Dad had an air-conditioner put into the station wagon.”
But, Jan reminds, “It spit water. And it really only worked for those in the front seat. So what I remember is that we kids took turns sitting in the middle in the front seat — and that thing dripping cold water on my bare feet.”
Closer to home, Tom enjoyed hunting birds, especially quail and some ducks, with his two pointers, Dolly and Deputy Dog. He was a regular visitor to Bennett Springs State Park to fish for trout. “He would get up early, early, early in the morning, drive from Sedalia to Bennett Springs (90 miles), catch fish, then come back and shower and go to work,” marvels Beverly. “He was at opening day of the season at Bennett Springs many times.”
In later years, another of Tom’s interests was horse racing, although his kids aren’t sure what piqued the interest of their city-boy father. “He would get on the computer and study the records of the horses and the jockeys,” says Beverly. “He could tell you everything about their histories. Like baseball fans know players’ batting averages, he for instance knew if a horse would do well on a muddy track or did not do well in the mud. He and Mom did go to the races at Hot Springs a few times, but mostly he just followed the horses on the computer and entered fantasy contests to try to pick winners.”
Back at the Sedalia pharmacy, Tom taught middle child Jan the ropes behind the soda fountain. “I could make everything — an ice cream soda, a cherry phosphate, a rootbeer float the right way. I could make any kind of soda from syrup and carbonated water. I ended up filling in behind the counter, and worked there pretty often. I didn’t get paid, but I had fun. Boy, I loved doing all that stuff.”
One of David’s favorite youthful memories involving that drug store was the story of an encounter that Tom had with a customer — a story that Tom told for true: “A lady came in one day and asked for baby oil. And Dad said to her, ‘What’s the matter — do you have a squeaky baby?’”
Letting the children test their wings
David learned another more important lesson from the soccer experience:
“This was the 1960s, and the Black people in Sedalia lived on the north side of town across the tracks. It was just the way it was then. Well, Dad would drive to the northside, pick up four, five or six kids — Black kids who were on my team, or some that weren’t but just needed a ride. If he didn’t pick them up they wouldn’t have made it to the soccer field because it was on the other side of town. That’s the kind of guy he was. Every game, every practice.”
David has another favorite childhood memory: “We would come to Springfield often to visit our grandparents. And Dad and I would get up at 3 in the morning and drive down to Branson to go trout fishing below Table Rock Dam. And he would put me on his shoulders and wade out into the water so I could cast farther out to catch fish.”
Tom volunteered to coach a soccer team so David could play. “He didn’t know anything about soccer — us kids knew more about soccer than he did — but he was there to support us. He’d throw the ball out there and let us play. We didn’t win any games, but we learned how to be good losers.”
All three kids learned to drive in Tom’s 1965 Mustang, using the deserted state fairgrounds as their practice area. He told them: “If you can drive a manual transmission, you can drive anything.” They say he was very patient — and he even allowed the girls to decorate the exterior of the gold Mustang with contact paper flowers during the hippie era.
All three kids describe Tom as very involved in their lives as they were growing up — but not overbearing and always encouraging them to test their wings.
“He wanted us to try things,” recalls David. “He was very lenient — but of course we had discipline, and I got spanked like every other kid. But he was very generous with his time.”
Says Jan: “Dad and Mom both let us be kids. They let us be creative — we’d put on shows in the backyard, and they would be our audience. Sometimes when we wanted to try something new, we’d say, ‘Can we do this?’ And they might think about it for a minute for safety reasons, but then they’d usually say, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’
“All the kids in the neighborhood came to our house. It was mainly because of Dad and Mom, because they allowed things to happen. They let us be social and grow up with everybody in the neighborhood.”
Their neighborhood changed in 1971 when Tom moved the family from Sedalia to Forsyth to work in a pharmacy there. Beverly and Jan were off at college, but David accompanied his parents to Taney County and he learned another lesson from his father:
“I had long hair, and in Forsyth, Missouri in the early ‘70s those kids didn’t have long hair…”
Jan picks up the story: “The school administration said he couldn’t have his hair down below his collar. And Dad said, ‘You cannot tell my kid how to wear his hair.’ And so they left Forsyth and moved to Branson.”
Tom became the first full-time, in-house pharmacist at what was then Skaggs Hospital in Branson, and stayed there for three decades. Then he and Midge moved to a comfortable home in southeast Springfield. She died in September of 2019, only three months shy of the couple’s 72nd wedding anniversary.
Tom was active in the clown corps of Springfield’s Abou Ben Adhem Shrine for many years. His character was dubbed Soapy – a nickname he actually carried in his youth after he mistook an unmarked glass jar of Oxydol laundry detergent for white corn meal when he was frying fish. He tested the first fish to come out of the pan and a friend asked him how it tasted. “Soapy,” was his reply — and the moniker stuck.
“In the parades when he was dressed as Soapy, he carried a little duck puppet that he called Suds,” says David. “Little kids thought it was real. He had another shtick, too — he’d carry a parasol, and during the parade he would walk like he was balancing on a tightrope.”
One of David’s favorite recent recollections is taking his dad to a public dock on the waterfront in Branson to fish for the first time in years. “He caught one, pulled it up onto the dock, looked down at that fish and said, ‘I’m baaaaaack!’”
The succeeding generations also speak fondly of “Grandpa Tom.”
Katie Lammers, who lives in Columbia, says her grandfather was “warm and funny. He pulls his grandkids and great-grandkids onto his lap and reads them books and sings them songs.” She and another granddaughter, Annie Barney, who lives in Shawnee, Kan., spontaneously break into a ditty they remember Tom singing to wake them up on a vacation trip: “The sun is up, the sun is up, sing merrily we the sun is up. The birds they sing upon the wing, the pigeons coo, the cattle moo…”
Katie grows emotional in recounting when, in 2019 after Midge had suffered a catastrophic stroke, Katie arrived at Mercy Hospital here.
“There was a whole bunch of family in the room, and Grandpa was sitting by her bedside. The case manager was there talking to them about some very serious decisions that they were having to get ready to make. But as soon as I walked into the room, Grandpa interrupted her mid-sentence and said: ‘I’m very sorry to interrupt, but my granddaughter Katie just came in, and it’s her birthday today, and I want to sing her a song.’ And he did…”
Annie says Tom always seemed “larger than life. I would reach up to give him a hug, and it seemed like I had to reach up forever. His laugh was just so loud – and his sneezes were so loud, too – I can hear it in my head still.
“I’m the middle child of a middle child, and so it’s really easy to feel like you’re just one among many, never particularly standing out in the crowd. But Grandpa always made me feel special. He just had a way of making everyone feel special.”
Another granddaughter, Christy Tapps, who lives in Maryville, puts it this way: “If I had to sum up Grandpa in just a couple of words, they would be The Best. His love was endless.”
The affection extends to the great-grandchildren as well.
Henry Lammers, 15, was gifted Tom’s Mercury Sable automobile in March. “I remember the last time I saw him was when we came over to pick up the car. He would always ask me to play dominoes. I had just never wanted to learn. But that night I finally did. It was my first time playing, and I won a good number of rounds. We didn’t realize how late it was getting, but it was almost 1 o’clock in the morning. He was used to sleeping a lot in the daytime, but he hadn’t that day – and yet he stayed up so late playing dominoes with me.”
Henry’s 9-year-old brother, August, treasures a ukulele that his grandfather gave him. Another 9-year-old great-grandchild, Stella Barney, says Tom “was really fun to be around.” And her 13-year-old brother, Joshua, has another domino story:
“I remember I was 4, and it was one of the first times I ever played dominoes, and that night I beat him quite a lot. He was a gracious loser. He let me take home the set of dominoes we were playing with. I still have it now.”
They all are fascinated by that story of Tom’s encounter with Albert Einstein. In addition to the student interview that first revealed the episode to his family, Tom recorded it for a veterans group that was collecting stories from former Missouri servicemen and servicewomen several years ago. Here’s how he told it in his own words:
“We were at Princeton for officer training school. There was an Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that was headed by Einstein.
“Well, there also was a place called the Princeton Inn that served a mean mint julep. My buddy and I would go there quite often. One day we met a fellow from Missouri who was a mathematician. He happened to work at the Institute for Advanced Study. So we asked him about Einstein.
“He said, ‘Oh, would you like to meet him?’ It didn’t take us long to answer that question. He told us, ‘Come up to the institute at 4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon and we’ll have tea.’
There was a last-minute mixup in the schedule, and Tom and his friend instead were invited to go to Einstein’s home at 5 o’clock.
“He was a very gracious host. He asked us what we planned to do when we got out of the service. I told him I wanted to go to pharmacy school. He said ‘That’s good.’ And then he said, ‘A lot of people say they would climb Mont Blanc if they could — but if they could, they wouldn’t want to.’
“Well, I didn’t know what Mont Blanc was or where it was. So I looked it up, and it’s the highest mountain in the Alps. I think the point of his remark was, ‘Don’t set your goals and aspirations so high that they’re unattainable.’”
Jan adds a postscript to the story:
“Fast forward 50 years. Mom and Dad go to Europe for their 50th anniversary. They are on a bus trip through the Alps, and the guide says, ‘Does anybody know what the highest peak in the Alps is?”
“Dad raises his hand right away and says, ‘Mont Blanc.’
“The guide says, ‘Nobody ever knows that! How did you know that?’
“And Dad says, matter-of-factly: ‘Einstein told me.’”