Buzz Baker: A Life of Adventures

In Buzz Baker’s apartment, two paintings showing the starkness of a snow-covered rural landscape hang near the couch. These serene scenes aren’t unlike the northern Wisconsin dairy farm where he grew up during the Great Depression.

But the harsh reality of that frigid climate meant that blizzards were a way of life. The family strung a clothesline between the house and barn with a worn bicycle tire on it to use for navigation. A similar setup connected the house and outhouse. Some winters, temperatures warmed to 20 below from 40 below.

After Buzz, now 91, was delivered by his grandfather at his home, he was brought to the log house where his parents used kerosene lamps and candles to cut the darkness. His family lived there until he was 5, when they moved into a house with electricity.

“Things were kind of tough back in those days, but everybody was in the same boat,” he said. “I don’t think I missed a meal, on a dairy farm of course.”

He’s named after his grandfather, Julian Crawford Baker, who was a physician. His brother, 16 months younger, couldn’t pronounce Julian, so instead called him “Buff,” which eventually became Buzz. The name, which has stuck with him since age 3, has been a good thing: “Buzz is hard to forget.”

A Solid Foundation

At age 6, Buzz rode a bus 50 miles each way to school. His dad bought three local dairy barns. Buzz recalls how he and his brother took care of many farm chores: giving the cows hay, filling the water tank. Early on, he decided he didn’t want to be a dairy farmer; it was too labor intensive.

In the middle of World War II, the family moved to Hawkins, a town of 596, where he attended grade school. After his grandfather died, they moved to Eau Claire, and Buzz went to high school and started playing football. They moved again to Stanley, where he played football, basketball and baseball. Baseball was his favorite, and, today, he enjoys going to Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Arkansas Razorbacks games.

When the Korean War came along, Buzz and three friends enlisted together, flipping a coin between Air Force and Navy. Navy won. The friends were dispersed after boot camp, and Buzz was assigned to the USS Dyess, a destroyer ship, in December 1951. He was lead petty officer over the supply division, overseeing the cooks, laundrymen, barber and sick bay, along with storerooms, refrigerators and pantries.

During his service, they went to the Mediterranean three times, as occupation forces as well as NATO forces. The USS Dyess protected the fleet when it moved, particularly through anti-submarine and aircraft detection.

“It was a wonderful experience for me. It was like a very liberal education,” he said. Over the years, he’s attended reunions for the ship all across the country.

He served four years in the Navy so he could get the GI Bill to pay for college. He earned an associate degree at a two-year junior college, then-Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Georgia. He went on to Valdosta State University for a Bachelor of Science in biology and chemistry. Since he was named after grandfather, he figured he was supposed to be a doctor.

Buzz met his first wife, Patricia Sullivan, while he was in junior college. They married his senior year at Valdosta State and soon had two sons, Michael and Martin. It was a tough relationship. He was working very long hours as a pharmacist, not able to be home very much, and she didn’t cope well with the strain.

After 17 years, they divorced. She went back home to her family in Georgia, taking their oldest, Michael. Marty stayed with Buzz through high school and college graduation.

Second Chance at Love

Buzz took flying lessons when living in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a town of about 65,000, because it was difficult to get in and out of via major highways. In his youth, he knew every kind of World War II aircraft, and he’d always wanted to fly himself.

He bought into a Cherokee 235 plane and got his private pilot license in 1972.

He could take the family to see his parents in Albany, Georgia — about a five-hour flight. One Christmas, he and his son, Marty, went to visit Buzz’s brother and family, and he met the woman who’d become his second wife.

Faye was a paralegal who’d been divorced for a while, just like Buzz. They ran up high phone bills for a stretch, and then he invited her to come to North Carolina, where they married a couple years later.

Buzz admired so much about Faye. As a paralegal for Farmworkers Legal Services, she once went to Costa Rica for a month to learn Spanish and came back to help the local labor force. She decided to get her insurance license and passed the test the first time. She was a vital, intelligent person — reading five books a week — and an excellent cook.

They did all kinds of things together. They’d get up in the morning and fly to Ocracoke for lunch or to Norfolk for breakfast — just impulse outings. They enjoyed great conversations and shared a sense of humor.

“I was important to her, and she was important to me,” he said. “She was an amazing woman. I miss her.”

Buzz and Faye were planning for their 25th wedding anniversary when she died in 2006. Over two months, her health had declined. A week before she died, she was officially diagnosed with a tumor that started at the base of her brain and grew rapidly.

Faye had two daughters and a son when she met Buzz. With his children from both marriages, he has nine grandchildren — three of them through international adoptions.

A Career of Care

Early in his career, Buzz sold pharmaceuticals to veterinarians in Georgia and Florida. He then went to pharmacy school at Auburn University and graduated in 1961. He didn’t enjoy his first job at a retail pharmacy, and then took a residency in a hospital pharmacy. He went back to Wisconsin in 1968, planning to buy into a pharmacy — but that didn’t work out. Done with harsh winters, he applied to several places in the South.

He started Jan. 1, 1971, as director of pharmacy at Cherry Hospital, the state psychiatric hospital, in Goldsboro, North Carolina. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but learned very quickly.”

The hospital served 2,500 patients; there was no pharmacist, and drugs were locked in a room. As the first licensed pharmacist there, Buzz organized the medications and stored them on picnic tables stacked down the middle of the room. Requests for medicine had to come through Buzz, with a doctor’s order.

Buzz worked with the nursing staff and medical records department to coordinate use of prescription and other medications, and he wrote a pharmacy manual. He worked with a team across the hospital to create a holistic treatment plan for patients. He also established a doctors’ lounge where physicians could rest and where drug salesmen could visit with them; he charged the drug reps and used the money for continuing education for staff.

By the time Buzz left the hospital in 1994, he said, “I would compare that pharmacy with any pharmacy in the state of North Carolina. I really brought in into the 21st century.”

Licensed in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia, he was also head of pharmacy for a 32-county region. He’d travel to the mental health centers and guide them on storing and dispensing drugs legally.

Buzz and a partner had started a clinical pharmacy in 1972, for which they did clinical work as part of treatment teams. When they dissolved that corporation, Buzz decided to retire. He was burned out, and his son Michael invited Buzz to live with him in an Alabama resort area.

Michael had an issue with a mitral valve in his heart that he was getting checked out. When Buzz and his other son Marty arrived in December 2019, they found Mike lifeless in a chair. Marty took care of handling funeral arrangements. And he invited Buzz to live with him and his family in Fayetteville.

At Home at BTV

After a couple of years with his son’s family, Buzz wanted to find a place of his own, and he heard about Butterfield Trail Village through Marty’s friends. He took a tour, loved what he saw, and joined the Carriage Club. He moved into his apartment April 1, 2022.

Through the loss of two wives and a son, Buzz has found comfort and companionship through his aviation friends. He belongs to the QBs, a century-old flying society. He still drives and is socially active, especially in activities at BTV. He plays Bunco once a month, walks on the trails and works out regularly in the fitness center.

Most mornings, he drinks coffee with friends by the fireplace or on the patio. He’s enjoyed getting to know many of his neighbors. “The people here — they’re all so bright and well educated; many are professors who’ve retired, or doctors or lawyers, and there’s a lot of former military.”

A diabetic, he often cooks for himself, to manage the ingredients in his meals. He enjoys the patio outside his living room, and recently added a hydrangea to his flowerbed. He reads aviation magazines and National Geographic.

Buzz also keeps in touch with his sisters and friends who live in Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina. He and an Auburn classmate talk every Sunday night, as they’ve done through the years. He and son Marty have lunch every Friday.

Over his 91 years, he’s learned a lot about himself and others. If given a task, he will work hard to do the best he can. He doesn’t assume much; he aims to be truthful and honest in what he says; and he’s learned not to take anything personally. “Nothing irritates me anymore. I just won’t let it.”

Words by Michelle Parks  |  Photos by Stephen Ironside