By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – David Baker isn’t as active as he once was, and his social calendar isn’t nearly as full.
In days past, he would pick up Edith Thomas and Louise Godwin and the trio would enjoy themselves at the Charity Ball. Since those two matriarchs of Tupelo have died, Baker had no interest in this year’s Charity Ball.
“As far as making plans and doing things, which I’m accustomed to doing, it just doesn’t happen any more,” the 91-year-old said. “You stay home by yourself.”
Except, that’s not exactly true.
For the past 20 years or so, he’s worked at the Lee County Circuit Clerk’s office. At first he made maps, and now he maintains the county’s voter registration rolls.
Baker also is part of a team that’s saving photographs from Tupelo’s past. Thousands of photos have been collected to become part of a digital archive to document the way Baker’s hometown used to be.
Along with Dick Hill, Mem Leake, Bill Lyle, Julian Riley and Boyd Yarbrough, Baker is the author of “Images of America: Tupelo,” a book featuring a small portion of the collected photos.
Of all that combined brain power, Baker’s memory is the one that gets the job done more often than not when it’s time to figure out who and what the photos actually depict.
“He has a fantastic memory, so he’s been our big asset,” Hill said. “When he goes, it goes with him, if he doesn’t tell us about it or write it down.”
The past is never too far away from Baker, who tends to round up his age the way kindergartners often do.
“I’m allowed. I was born on the 6th of March,” he said, “so 92 is coming up.”
That’s a lot of years gone by, but it doesn’t always seem that way to Baker.
“I don’t feel any different from when I was younger. That’s what upsets you so, you feel the same and everything changes,” he said. “I can think back and think how Tupelo was and the people I knew.”
People like Mr. Shires, his Scoutmaster at Troop 12, and Mrs. Cornelius and Mrs. Green, who taught him piano, readily pop to mind.
Fond memories bubble up about his first horse, Polly, as well as Dot Doty, Neal and Jerry Troy and Byron Long Jr., who used to keep their horses at the stables at the east end of the Tupelo Fairgrounds.
“We were all friends, and we rode every day,” he said.
Another young Tupelo resident must not have made a big impression on Baker at the time.
It was Baker’s job to present prizes to the winners of a talent show at the Lyric Theatre that was sponsored by his dad’s business, W.H. Baker Furniture Co.
One of the winners, whose name isn’t hard to guess, had slipped Baker’s mind until several years ago, when the emcee for the event reminded him.
“It was put on, I think, every six weeks – every Friday night for six weeks. Elvis hadn’t been playing too long, but he won a prize that first time. It was a radio, a Philco radio,” Baker said. “The first five winners competed on the sixth night. Elvis didn’t win that.”
Of course, Elvis Presley has gone worldwide since then, and the same can be said of Baker, even if not to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s extent.
Baker was called to duty during World War II, and stationed on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia before transferring to Manilla in the Philippines to serve at Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters.
“I didn’t work closely with him,” Baker said, “but I would see him in the building.”
The headquarters was the site of a surreal experience. A Japanese general showed up to surrender and tender his sword to MacArthur, but there was a problem.
“No one could find MacArthur. He wasn’t going to give his sword to just anybody. Funny things happened. The war wasn’t always serious,” Baker said with a smile that went well with his pencil-thin mustache. “It was quite a spell before we found MacArthur that day.”
After the war, Baker spent time in New York to study interior decorating, then came back to Tupelo to work for his dad’s furniture company and his own design firm.
The space isn’t available to list all of Baker’s contributions to his hometown. A highlight reel of sorts must suffice.
He was on the team that raised $50,000 for a new pipe organ for Tupelo First United Methodist Church, where he also was president of the choir.
He helped start the Miss Hospitality Pageant, and was once in charge of Christmas parades, lighting and decorations for downtown Tupelo.
“The Courthouse looked like a wedding cake after we got through,” he said, laughing at the memory.
When the Community Concert Association needed a change, he stepped in as president.
“We reorganized the ticketing,” he said. “We covered every street in town and every house. We had an auditorium full when it was over.”
Baker traveled the country and the world, and told Mayor James Ballard and other city leaders about the beautiful tree-lined streets he found in far-off places.
“It must have hit home,” he said, “because in a few years street trees were planted in Tupelo.”
He organized a foreign film series, and decorated the theater in the theme of that week’s movie.
He also led the Lee County Genealogical Society for a time, and hiked through many of Lee County’s roughly 300 cemeteries.
“The women all worked at shirt factories and the men were asleep on the porch, or it seemed to me,” Baker said. “There was always a man there to point us to even the remotest cemeteries. They’d have the biggest monuments, these huge obelisks in little cemeteries just over a hill or through some woods. You’d never guess they were there if you didn’t walk up on them.”
More to do
His accumulated life experience has come in handy at the circuit clerk’s office. He learned filing at his dad’s company, and those skills were reinforced during his stint at MacArthur’s headquarters.
Baker knows the lay of Lee County’s land from his days on horseback as a kid, as well as from marching through Tupelo to sell Community Concert Association subscriptions.
He was hired at about the same time as Lee County was instituting E-911. He didn’t work for E-911, but his task of determining which registered voters lived where dovetailed nicely.
“They couldn’t find people. When they called in a shooting or something, the didn’t know how to find Possum Trail or Turkey Creek or any road like that,” he said. “I used to ride horseback a great deal as a youngster. We covered a lot of territory. Of course, with the job, I had to take a car out and find out where most things were.”
After that initial job was done, he took on other duties, and was recently sitting at a table piled with voter registration papers.
“These are the dead people,” he said. “I’m trying to alphabetize them and put them away.”
He’s a paid employee and the work can get tedious at times, but he called it a blessing.
“They’re kind enough to let me just work the hours I work,” he said. “This is really wonderful for me. It’s been a help, mentally, as well as monetarily.”
Baker doesn’t get around the way he used to, and many of his friends have gone on. It’s understandable if the past holds more interest for him than the present.
Except, he’s 91 – with 92 coming up – and still finding ways to contribute to his hometown.
“Long, long ago, I came to the conclusion that ‘God’ and ‘Love’ are one and the same. This has always been my belief,” he said, “and I’ve enjoyed sharing my talents all my life.”