As Professor Mike Foster walked from the parking lot to his classroom inside Illinois Central College, he saw a giant crow flying overhead, cawing.
He entered the classroom and said to his students: “Does the crow always get the last word?”
Then, he broke down in tears.
It was 1988 and I was sitting in that classroom. Rick Baker, the well-known Peoria Journal Star columnist, had died in a car wreck a few days prior.
As Professor Mike Foster walked from the parking lot to his classroom inside Illinois Central College, he saw a giant crow flying overhead, cawing. He entered the classroom and said to his students: “Does the crow always get the last word?” Then, he broke down in tears. It was 1988 and I was sitting in that classroom. Rick Baker, the well-known Peoria Journal Star columnist, had died in a car wreck a few days prior. Foster and Baker were friends. In class, we were reading “The Once and Future King,” a book about King Arthur. We were discussing the fourth book called “The Candle in the Wind,” in which Arthur is on his death bed and passing his legacy on to young Tom of Warwick. There was an image of a storm crow throughout the story, which, to me, symbolized death. This imagery coupled with Baker's death was too much. I cried at my desk upon seeing my mentor in tears. A few weeks ago, I began thinking about Rick Baker when a local blogger mentioned him to me. This prompted me to reread Baker's books. I believe “Baker's Best” was produced before his death and “The Rest of Baker's Best,” came out after his death. He also wrote an excellent book called “Mary, Me,” which is about a woman with amnesia whose identity no one knew. The woman was dubbed Mary Doefour. She died in a Morton nursing home in 1978. Baker spoke to a journalism class I was in, but unfortunately, I can't remember what he said. I do know I asked him what he ate for breakfast. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Nothing really. Coffee.” The reason I asked such an odd question is because every day before class, Professor Foster asked if we had any questions such as what Rick Baker had for breakfast. I don't know why he always said that, but I just had to ask. Over the past couple of weeks, I've looked forward to evenings at home where I get a glass of wine and read “Baker's Best,” a collection of Baker's best columns that ran in the Peoria Journal Star. Man, are they good. Baker wrote about injustice, going after the bad guys and sticking up for the underdog. His stories are captivating. Rereading these stories makes me sad. I wished I could have known this great writer. I wished I could have interviewed him. He was someone I aspired to be like. I've only known of one other reporter who reminded me of Baker — DeWayne Bartels, my coworker and friend, who died in 2012. I could gain an insight into Baker's style of writing from reading his books, but I wanted to know more. This prompted me to contact Foster, who invited me to his farmhouse in Metamora to talk about Baker. Foster sat in a chair in his living room sipping a glass of wine as the wind whipped the tree branches outside. Foster met Baker in 1982 when he was working at the Journal Star and on sabbatical from ICC. “He loathed me. He disliked me at first sight because I was a college professor,” Foster said. Foster came from a different background. He earned a master's degree from Marquette University, whereas Baker was an “Army brat” with a high school education. According to the preface of “Baker's Best,” Baker lived in Europe for eight years and “while in that country the young Baker developed a severe dislike for any form of authority, seeing it as cruel, stupid and self serving. This is why he did poorly in school, where he was taught by ex-Nazis, all of whom falsely claimed to have been in factions of the resistance.” After his father died, when Baker was 16, he moved back to Illinois where he later attended Illinois Wesleyan for three days before dropping out. Despite Foster's and Baker's differences, they became friends after insulting one another. “He insulted my sweater vest and I insulted his mustache,” Foster said. He shaved the mustache off and I never wore that sweater vest to the Journal Star again. Before I knew it we were sitting on Grandview Drive on a picnic bench overlooking the river with Jerry Klein (Journal Star columnist) and drinking beers and thinking, 'Peoria's a pretty cool place except there are a lot of jacka**es here.'” Just as Baker had his enemies, Foster said he cherished his friends. Foster recounted how one time Baker showed up to work with a black eye. Foster asked him what happened. Baker said, “Someone didn't like something I wrote.” Baker used to show up at Foster's farmhouse unannounced with a six-pack to share. Foster would hear the tires crunching the gravel in the driveway and the familiar voice yell, 'Hey Michael!' The men would sit in lawn chairs and talk about life. Even though Foster said the unannounced intrusion was inconvenient at times because he had papers to grade, he admitted the couple of hours spent with his friend was far more important. During conversations, Foster gave Baker a couple of story tips. One of those tips dealt with the first Farm-Aid concert in Champaign. Prior to the concert, Baker stopped by Foster's home. Foster recalled that Baker said, “Man, I got a ticket to go to this. I don't want to go at all. If I knew a real farmer, I'd give him a ticket.” Foster knew a hog farmer named Pete Streid and called him. Baker gave Streid the ticket and told him to call after the concert to relate the experience. “It was really a very good column. Pete went because he kind of wanted to hear BB King and Willie Nelson. Peter was very ambivalent about Farm Aid. He said it's a crap shoot. Some years you get good weather and some years you don't,” Foster said. “Actually he described the whole thing as worth as much as a bale of wet hay, which is worthless, but Rick had the column in the next day.” Foster began inviting Baker to speak to his journalism students at ICC. “I never knew what he was going to do. He might say to students, 'This is worthless. Drop out of college.' Or he might say, 'Take it seriously.'” The most important thing Foster said that Baker told his students was to have fun with journalism because it's too hard if you don't have fun with it. This gave me pause because most of Baker's columns, or at least the ones I read in his books were of a serious nature, and some are downright depressing because they deal with the death of children. They also deal with injustice and the negative side of humanity, but there were funny moments, too. Foster liked the column Baker wrote when the speed limit was increased to 65 mph. Baker talked about driving to Leroy — the town he was born in, lived in and is buried in — with his ears flapping in the breeze from driving 65 mph. I'm sure he was being sarcastic. I laughed out loud reading his Mary Doefour essay when Baker took a trip to Chicago to visit a bone expert. Baker had two photographs, one of a young missing school teacher from Iowa, and one of Doefour. He wanted to see if the bone expert could determine from looking at their pictures if the two women were one in the same. Baker thought he had plenty of time to get to Chicago before the bone expert had a meeting and would be unavailable for the rest of the day, but then he couldn't find a parking space, so in a desperate rush, he hopped the curb and parked his Mercedes in a plaza next to an art sculpture. I asked Foster if Baker was his favorite journalist. “As a journalist, as a columnist, yeah, I'd say so. I liked Royko, but Baker was local,” Foster said. I wondered how Baker became such a master of his craft, having graduated in the bottom 10 percent of his Leroy High School class and with no formal journalism training in college. Foster provided his insight. “Like Philip Josť Farmer, the late Peoria science fiction writer, who had a high school education, Rick had no education beyond high school. I don't even know if he had full high school. ... But, like Philip Josť Farmer, he was one of the most well-read men I ever met. I mean, I taught with people at ICC who were not nearly as well read as Baker,” Foster said. Twenty-six years after his death, I think about all of the excellent stories we are missing out on and I wonder what Baker would be writing about today. Foster said he thinks Baker would be writing about the same stuff, more or less. “I think he would be on District 150 like a puppy on a dropped piece of steak. I think he would be on corporate meddling in local affairs. You know, Peoria firm sponsoring the mayor's state of the city message. I think he'd be on that,” Foster said. “He was a Cubs fan so I think he would be on their even more terminally decline into last place forever.” Baker wrote more than 400 pieces for the Journal Star, and I will never forget the column in the newspaper after his death. There was a huge, gaping hole where his words normally would have been. I think there is also a huge, gaping hole in the world of journalism without Baker, who, at 36, died way too young. At the end of the interview, I asked Foster if he had anything else to add, a technique he taught me in his journalism class. “Good question,” he said. And through a cracking, tearful voice, he added, “Yeah, I miss him. I always will.” Then Foster raised his wine glass, and said, “There's an English toast to absent friends. Rick will always be absent which is too bad.” — Jeanette Kendall is the executive editor at TimesNewspapers and the editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier.