A week ago last Thursday I returned to campus after lunch to find a demolition machine tearing down the Baker House.

I was startled, but the decision makes practical sense. Students have plenty of new, excellent housing, more suitable than these old houses. The new lodges and halls are even named after some of our finest teachers—Williams Hall, Butler Lodge, Rogge Hall.

And only a few of us ever called 16 Harry Freedman Place “Baker House.” A small group in Communications dubbed it so in the late 1990s when we moved into the place in for a year and found out it had been the home of Professor of English Donald Baker.

That would be Donald Whitelaw Baker H’57, the College Poet. The man Professor Bill Placher ’70 called “the best reader of poetry I’ve ever heard,” who Professor Vic Powell H’55 called “a man of great moral courage,” who Professor Bert Stern H’62 said “lived in honest language in a world where language was every day more heavily enshrouded in lies.”

It was a home of legendary faculty parties, too.

And this was the guy who penned the College’s first mission statement after a faculty meeting in 1972.

I learned more about him from his friends when Professor Marc Hudson hosted a memorial tribute to Don in the winter of 2004. And I learned more, too, about that first Wabash mission statement, which the poet penned as a “statement of purpose,” saying that a Wabash education prepares students “to judge thoughtfully, act effectively, and live humanely in a difficult world.”

The College tweaked that statement a bit in the 1990s, and Professor Hall Peebles H’63 wasn’t keen on the change: “I think something is missing by removing Don’s final part of that line, ‘to live humanely in a difficult world.’ Because the wonder of Don Baker is that he knew damned well this is a very difficult world, but he didn’t give in to it; he fought it. And he knew that if you don’t give in to it, you can make it a little better. It’s difficult, but darn it all, it can be a better world. Don Baker made the world, and Wabash, a better place.”

Don’s memorial tribute was attended by his daughter, Alison Baker Rilling, a writer herself who told me more about the house and what it was like growing up there, and at Wabash, in the 1960s. She told me about a birdhouse she made and decorated and attached to the back porch and inscribed with the name “J. Wren.” After she left I took a closer look at that porch and saw that J. Wren’s house was still there, so I took a picture and emailed it to Alison.

And every time I’ve passed it I’ve thought of Alison, her father, and those people at that tribute—Placher, Powell, Peebles, Stern, Hudson, Herzog—whose friendships helped make my life at Wabash the wonder and awakening it has been.


I don’t know exactly how an old birdhouse becomes such a touchstone, but I do know this has been a summer of losses—the MXI’s father, Horace Turner H’76; Nancy Doemel H’91, who re-shaped philanthropy here; the one-and-only Don Herring H’84; and gentleman Jim Smith H’50, among them. Losses I could do nothing about but mourn.

house in peril2But when I saw the demolition machine’s maw hanging over the old Baker House, I knew I could do something. I grabbed my camera for one last photo, then realized that alerting someone to the fact their childhood home has been destroyed and sending photos would be more torture than gift.

So I called out over the crunch and growl of the machine to a young man in an orange vest. When he came over, I told him about the birdhouse, how I thought it’s maker would appreciate having it.

“Any chance you could stop things for just a second and get it for me?”

a wren house safe“Sure,” was all he said, raising his hand to the machine operator, calling out for him to stop, pointing to the back porch. Then he clambered over the rubble, pulled down the birdhouse and cradled it in both hands. He was smiling as brought it back to me.

I am old enough that small kindnesses move me; I choked up a little trying to thank him.

“Hey, just glad we could get it for her,” the young man said.

Back in my office I photographed J. Wren’s abode and sent the pictures to the most recent email address I had for Alison, hoping she’d get them.

A few minutes later, Alison, being a writer, replied with a gift of her own:

Memory is such a weird and treacherous thing—remembering standing up on the brown wooden railing at that back door to peer into J. Wren’s doorway brings back the damp odor of the basement down those steps, the cool dark dankness, the cave crickets leaping out at you, the washing machine (it was old and in need of repair which would have been expensive, so since my mother was afraid of bats and cave crickets, my father would go down to do the laundry and stand there leaning against the machine, reading, manually changing the cycles as each one finished).

The hedge of Viburnum trilobum. The Trippets’ ivy-covered wall. The little white gate. Old Mrs. Trippet’s black-and-white spaniels…


I have a quilt in my office designed, pieced, and sewn by Nancy Doemel, one of her last works. It’s called “Churn Dash Deconstructed,” and Nancy made it using a method called “free piecing.” One side is a typical quilt—multiple pieces of printed fabric, images of eggs, butterflies, plants, and leaves all sewn together. This is actually the back of the quilt. Most of the front is a single color except for one image—a butterfly—and a few other pieces sewn in the old Churn Dash design. It’s a remnant from the other side—what the artist deemed the essential image, along with the pattern that holds it all together.

A trace of the quilt’s DNA.

It’s Nancy at her most creative, too, breaking out of set patterns to quietly re-define herself, just as she did in her life after Wabash. I look at that quilt and hear her excitedly walking me through the decision making process.

house and quilt

When I first got it I showed it to Wabash Magazine designer Becky Wendt, and she understood it immediately. A remnant. This is what we do in our work here. “Sew”—in a story, a photograph, a quote, even a birdhouse—some essential piece of a person, or a moment, an idea, before they go away. To remember. To somehow continue the conversation.

It is not enough.

When we heard last weekend the terrible news that sophomore Luke Borinstein had been killed in an airplane accident only days after returning from Global Health work in Peru, we scrambled for images and quotes. We found a few. But Luke had before him as many years as most of the friends we’ve lost this summer had behind them. No photograph, word, or artifact can be of much consolation to his classmates, teachers, or his brothers.

It is never enough.

But it is something we can do—an alternative, if not an antidote, to despair. Perhaps us at our most human.

Poets do this work best. Don Baker, whose words live on though his life and house are gone, gets at it here in one of his last poems.

A Branch of Beach Plum

Most days I walk the old track under the pines
and over the dunes to the beach.
I have chosen for you the bend in the path
where a thicket of beach plum survives the backhoes,
where at noon in our season the air
used to be heavy with the smell of blossoms.
This morning I walked on the brown needles
as gently as I could so that no abrupt
gesture would temper the music of the warblers
in the spruce. Returning, I broke off
a branch of beach plum and carried it home.
Now it rises from the blue vase on the mantel,
the flowers, fragile and pink, beginning to wither,
one broken twig oozing a clear drop.
Yes, that is where I should like to meet you,
halfway between home and the shore, knowing
that back there are kitchen and books and bedroom,
a house full of lives and living,
and, not far ahead, the comforting sea.

—Donald W. Baker