Community Portrait: Mentor and motorcycle maven finds strength in givingBy: Michael Kirby, Journal correspondent
He’s a big man, his hands large and rough with calluses from a lifetime of physical work and tinkering with vintage motorcycles.
He doesn’t hear too well without his hearing aid, but this guy is a gem. Gene Baker has lived a good life; some of it not so great but even the bad times could not harden his big heart.
Baker is a kind man and committed to helping others needing a hand, guidance or a friend. At 70 years old, he’s learned a lot about life.
Baker spent most of his life working in roofing. For 35 years of his career, from 1972 to 2007 right here in Auburn, he was self-employed as the owner of Baker Roofing. Before coming to Auburn in 1972, Baker worked in commercial roofing for various companies, putting roofs on schools, hospitals, businesses and countless homes.
His Baker Roofing trucks were painted bright yellow with a mother and baby whale lettered on the doors — some long-time Auburn residents might remember.
“What can I say, I like whales,” Baker said. Now in retirement, Baker indulges his passion for vintage motorcycles and has spent many years restoring and riding them.
Also over the years, Baker has helped many boys whom he befriended and mentored. With several other concerned individuals, including his wife, Karen, he started a community-wide project called Caring about Kids, eventually involving hundreds of volunteers with the goal of helping children needing a positive relationship with an adult.
Baker used his love of motorcycles to interest boys and provide them with positive experiences and help them achieve their dreams and goals. Baker connected with six teenage boys from dysfunctional homes and started spending time with them.
“I had 11 different-sized off-road motorcycles for any size boy, and as they grew they got on bigger motorcycles,” he said. “That’s how I hooked them. You put a teenaged boy with a bad attitude on a dirt bike and he starts to learn lessons real quick.”
Baker turned his passion for motorcycles into a learning tool for boys needing guidance.
In 2000, Baker completed training that allowed him to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). This appointment allowed Baker a legal role in helping boys with problems and gave him a voice in court proceedings on behalf of the boys and their parents, if necessary.
Baker has first-hand knowledge, coming from a very dysfunctional family himself. He suffered abuse from an alcoholic father who soon abandoned his wife and family. He knows the loss of a father and how lonely, confusing and hurtful childhood can be.
One would have to think Baker’s experience growing up in poverty and under the abuse of his father has guided his work with these boys.
Baker’s father ended up in prison and he emotionally recalls the traumatic impact of visiting him in prison as a 9-year-old. His father later committed suicide.
The boys have long since grown, and he sometimes gets a call or visit from one of them. Sometimes it’s to talk of how life’s going or still to seek his guidance on a decision or problem.
The relationships they forged have been long-lasting, and his influence and interaction was life-changing for the boys. The experience also enriched Baker’s life. Seemingly something within him has been satisfied a little with his relationships with these boys.
Baker’s work hasn’t ended, as he is currently a friend/mentor to a 20-year-old with multiple sclerosis who comes to his house almost daily and helps him with motorcycle restoration. The man is in a wheelchair with limited movement, and calls Baker his best buddy.
Baker also cares for a 77-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, providing companionship and driving him to doctor appointments or giving his wife a break from caregiving.
Baker lives in Meadow Vista with his wife, Karen. He collects antiques, writes poetry, collects classic cars among other hobbies, but he is always open to helping anyone in his community who is in need.