John “Jack” H. Baker was born on June 16th, 1916 in Buffalo, NY. He grew up in both Woodlawn, NY and the city of Buffalo. Having watched his father lose his business during the great depression, he became an extremely hard worker at a young age. His true passion was playing the drums, which he began when he was a child. His father gave him his first lesson which consisted of him playing a complex pattern, and telling Jack to “come back when you can play that”.
The story on how he ended up in the US Coast Guard was really a matter of a lucky encounter. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he knew that it was only a matter of time before he was drafted. He had attempted to enlist in the Navy and the Marines, but neither of them had any openings. Fearing ending up on the front lines with the Army, he was speaking to his neighbor about his dilemma. “Have you tried the Coast Guard?” his neighbor asked. Later that day, Jack went enlisted in the Coast Guard, who was more than happy to take him.
Soon after joining the Coast Guard, Jack was sent to Boston, MA to join up with his new ship. The story he often told was that there were dozens of men lined up at the port, where a small USCG tugboat was tied off. When he asked what boat they were going on, a man pointed in the direction of the tug. The whole situation not making much sense, he asked the obvious question of how were all these men going to fit on that tiny boat? It was then that someone pointed him to what the tug was attached to – the USS Duane.
During World War II, Jack sailed across the Atlantic “27 times” according to his many stories and accounts. He visited places such has Nova Scotia, Cuba, Iceland, Italy, Southern France, and Northern Africa. On board the USS Duane, he served as a Ph. M. 1st Class – which was a medic. He assisted the on board doctors with treating the soldiers while they were at sea, and on land after they landed in port.
Nearing the completion of his service, one of his superiors offered him a deal that would send him to medical school at Columbia University to become a doctor, in exchange for his continued service in the Coast Guard. After four years of service, he decided that he would rather go back home to Buffalo, NY.
Soon after arriving home, he was staying with his parents. One afternoon, his mother asked him to to run an errand by going to her friend Mrs. Kirsch’s house. Although he tried to get out of doing it, his mother insisted. After arriving at the Kirsch’s, Jack quickly realized his mother’s true intention – to meet their daughter Katherine. That night the two of them went out dancing, and they never looked back.
Jack and Katherine were married on November 17, 1945. Over the next decade, they had four children – Dennis, Dolores, Jack and Judith. The family grew up in the Bailey / Kensington neighborhood in the East Side of Buffalo in a house on Bickford Avenue. The house was built by Jack and his father. During these years, he would work all day at General Telephone (later Sylvania) and would then work all night playing the drums. He often told stories about getting home in the early hours of the morning from playing and then turning around to get ready for his day job.
Jack’s true passion was always the drums, he played at many of the top venues in Western New York and later on in Florida. In his 60s, he was laid off from Sylvania and turned to playing the drums as his full time job. He was very well respected amongst his fellow musicians as a hard working and reliable band member. He played all the way until he was in his late 80s. He once told me that selling his drums was one of the hardest things he ever did.
Jack and Katherine lived together until early 2010 when Katherine went into assisted living. In October of 2010, Jack passed away after a very short illness at the age of 94. He was survived by his wife Katherine, son Dennis, daughter Dolores, son Jack, and his daughter Judi. He had several grandchildren – Chris, Mark, Matthew, Ginger, Dustin, Adam and Todd.
In the months before his passing, he remained living on his own – still cooking his own meals and doing his own laundry. Even well into his 90s, he never lost his knack for telling stories. I have honestly never heard anyone tell a story like him or who could recite a limerick the way he did. Of all the stories he told over the years, his most favorite were about his time in the Coast Guard during World War II.