November 30, 2019 10:04:37 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
When Fred Baker awoke on Nov. 16, he didn't know it would be what he'd later describe as one of the best days of his life. The 98-year-old World War II veteran had a full schedule planned. He was to be honored during Mississippi State's home football game against Alabama that day; it would be MSU's designated Military Appreciation game. Baker, who lives in Columbus, wasn't quite sure what to expect, but what he got exceeded all expectation.
Some background: Born in Virginia, Baker has lived most of his life in Alabama, much of it in Sumterville and then Cochrane, a few miles south of Aliceville. The widower is the last living of 10 siblings. He is also a dyed-in-the-wool Alabama football fan.
"I was a fan back when Harry Gilmer was quarterback (in the 1940s), way back then, and I've been a fan ever since -- all through the Bear Bryant time up until now," he told The Dispatch. So, to be headed to Starkville to be honored for his military service, and to be able to watch The Tide play, was double reason to look forward to the day.
Baker was tapped for the veteran salute through contact his nephew, Johnny Baker of Columbus, made with the university. Arrangements were coordinated by MSU Athletics Department Assistant Director of Marketing Matt Meyer.
"We honor a military member each game, and this was our Military Appreciation game," said Meyer. "For that game we usually try to honor veterans of World War II." Baker was originally to be one of three veterans saluted Nov. 16, but the others were unable to attend due to health.
As halftime approached, anticipation rose for Baker and his 20 or so family members in the stands. The military tribute took place during a planned time-out in the third quarter.
"Our team of interns rolled out a red carpet and we went live on the video board," Meyer said. Then, on the field and projected on the towering jumbotron over Davis Wade Stadium, former U.S. Army Second Lt. Fred Baker -- who served in the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa and Anzio, Italy -- made his way out to the accompaniment of the announcer's voice.
"You would have thought Elvis had come back," said Davis Baker of Columbus, another of the veteran's nephews. The crowd of thousands rose to its collective feet, clapping and cheering as the nonagenarian waved.
"He had a rousing standing ovation," added Johnny. "I bet they stood up and cheered for at least a full minute or more."
"We had a lot of family up in the stands, and I heard two or three of them who were in different locations say there were people crying. It was just amazing, that this 98-year-old was out there standing up for all the World War II veterans, standing out there for all the guys, and for a lot of them that didn't come back."
For Fred, it was a mountaintop moment.
"I felt pretty awesome to be honored and to be on that field in Starkville," he said. "As far as memories go, it ranks high -- a real highlight."
But Fred Baker's remarkable day wasn't done.
Icing the cake
As the game concluded, MSU Athletics Department personnel took Fred, by wheelchair, toward the end of stadium where maybe, just maybe ...
"We ended up down there where the (Alabama) players came off the field," the veteran recounted. A former cabinetmaker, Baker had brought with him a deer antler writing pen he had made in his workshop in Cochrane, something he hoped to gift to The Tide's Coach Nick Saban should he get the opportunity.
Johnny Baker, a sports photographer who had shot the game that day, did his best to make that happen.
"I met the coach on about the 15- to 20-yard-line. He was escorted by highway patrolmen. He was walking fast, and I was step-by-step with him and said 'Coach, there's a World War II veteran that would like to speak to you.' When I said that, he looked at me, and when I pointed, he walked straight over to Uncle Fred." What happened next was, Johnny said, "the icing on the cake."
A video of Baker's brief encounter with the head coach had, as of press time, amassed more than 300,000 Twitter hits. In it, Saban approaches the elder man and shakes his hand.
"He thanked me for my service," Fred said. "I gave him the pen I made and he thanked me for it, and he put his arm around me and thanked me again."
The coolest thing
Between the on-field military tribute and meeting the coach of his lifelong favorite college team, Fred Baker was, his nephews agreed, on Cloud Nine.
Davis said, "I promise, it was the coolest thing. People were wanting to take pictures with my uncle. They were talking to him, shaking his hand, hugging his neck. One of the neatest things, I think, was seeing him up on the jumbotron. It was quite a day. I was just humbled to have a little part in it."
Johnny added, "(Uncle Fred) told me, 'It's just been one of the best days of my life.' It just touches your heart when somebody 98-years-old says that."
Fred, who is already planning the next pens he'll make as soon as he can visit his workshop again, confirmed it:
"Awesome," he said. "It was just awesome."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.