"My function as a teacher is
to show students the value
of language, to show them
how it can be a means of
total, honest, true
communication. It is possible
to teach them that at this
—Donald Baker



Three Essays on Don Baker

"The Tang of the Apple on the Tongue"
by Mark Galliher ’79

Bearing Witness
by Bert Stern

Three Ways
of Looking at My Father
by Alison Baker


A Selection of
Poems by Don Baker


Winter/Spring 2000

"To Live Humanely in a Difficult World"
An aerial navigator in World War II, Don Baker "kept the conscience of language" during some of the most turbulent times that the country, and Wabash, ever faced. and his words continue to inform the College's mission. In three short essays, a former student, a fellow poet, and Baker's daughter, O. Henry Prize-winner Alison Baker, sketch a family portrait of the poet-teacher and the Wabash College of his 34-year tenure.

It was November 1972 and the College was struggling for words. President Thad Seymour and the faculty needed to capture in a single statement the ways a Wabash education changes the lives of its students. A committee's first stab at the missive was technically correct, but uninspiring.

Then the College's poet-in-residence spoke up. The statement, he said, needs to exemplify "man talking to man." "If we are to re-emphasize communication we must, in our own writings, set the example."

So he offered his alternative—words that have guided the College for the past 30 years. A Wabash education, he wrote, prepares students "to judge thoughtfully, act effectively, and live humanely in a difficult world."

When Professor of English Emeritus Donald W. Baker H'57 penned that coda to the College's curriculum preamble, he could have been describing his own life as a teacher, poet, and father. Praised in literary circles, Baker won the Pushcart Prize and the Borestone Mountain Prize, and was nominated for a Pulitzer. After reading Baker's work in Formal Application, the distinguished American poet William Stafford said: "[Baker] digests experience... like a bear. This book made me come to with surprise as I read page after page, section after section, saying, 'yes, that's right!'"

But to the students he inspired in his Shakespeare classes, directed in Scarlet Masque productions, or joined on the baseball field as shortstop for the faculty softball team, the professor was a Wabash man. Before he retired in 1987, they made it official, and Baker became an honorary alumnus of the Class of '57.

Last spring, Professor of Religion and Philosophy Bill Placher '70 introduced current Wabash students to Baker's poetry during a Chapel talk.

"An admired colleague and treasured friend, Don Baker remains the best reader of poetry I've ever heard, " Placher said, adding this anecdote: "The last semester Don Baker taught here, he and I taught Shakespeare together one Wednesday evening in Senior Colloquium. At the end of the class, when students had left and it became time to assign grades, he said to me: 'Placher, let me pass on to you the accumulated wisdom of over thirty years of teaching. Whenever you can't decide which grade to give a student, always give the higher one. It doesn't do you any harm, and it makes the student feel so much better.'

"A lot of his students in freshman comp, I must say, would have been astonished to hear him say that."

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