Dinner with Living History

As the ancient Hopi Indian sages used to say: Much travel means meager bloggage. Sorry.

On Friday, I delivered the eulogy at Poppa George’s home-going service and said a few words at graveside.  As I mentioned on Twitter, there are far worse duties one can be assigned than to a provide a voice of tribute to a man who lived well; saw more than the psalmist’s “three score and ten”; loved God, and is now a resident of heaven.

Drove home on Saturday, leaving the spousal unit in Oklahoma City to support her mother in transition. Cared for sick child over the weekend and tried to catch up on work.

On Tuesday, I drove up to the ancestral homestead in eastern Oklahoma so I could drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment Wednesday morning. (Dad isn’t supposed to be driving any more.) And I was overdue for a visit anyway, even though this was going to be a very short one.

On Tuesday evening, Mom was supposed to be fasting, so Dad and I went to town for dinner with one of his best friends–a gentleman who lives about a quarter-mile up the road. Dad, who turned 80 back in June, is the young whipper-snapper of the duo. My other dinner companion on this evening turned 90 last month.

He is Dr. J.N. Baker, one of the most distinguished and respected living Oklahomans. He is also one of the finest men it’s ever been my privilege to know.

“Dr. Baker,” as everyone in little Wilburton, Oklahoma has known him for the last five decades, was the President of Eastern Oklahoma A&M back when my father was hired to be the head of the biology department there in the mid-60s. To many other Oklahomans, he was “Major General Baker,” the former commanding officer of the legendary 45th Infantry Division–the “Thunderbirds.”


Dr. Baker had served in both World War II and the Korean conflict. Later in the 50s, while still commanding the 45th which, by that time, had been repositioned as the Oklahoma National Guard, he became the Dean of Student Affairs at Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M).

Dr. Baker may be the most others-oriented person I’ve ever known. Even at 90, he is a serving, giving force of nature. His treasured wife, Helen, died a few years back after several years of blindness and declining health. In that season he cared for her, attended to her, and doted on her at a level that was a wonder and inspiration to everyone who witnessed it.

When, on many occasions, someone would remark to him about how heroic he was in his efforts, he would wave off the compliment. “She took care of me for more than 60 years. The least I can do is take care of her now.” When she passed away, my mom and dad started looking after him. Now, that they’re struggling, he’s looking after them.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Baker, I discovered a fascinating little bit of detail worthy of a Paul Harvey, “The Rest of the Story.”

In 1958, Oklahoma State University had no “official” mascot. Since about 1924, they were officially the Oklahoma State “Cowboys,” but no mascot had ever been formally adopted. There was an unofficial mascot however. Back in 1923 a group of OSU students had caught of glimpse of this guy leading an Armistice Day parade:


It was Frank Eaton, the legendary gunfighter and lawman who at one time was known as “the fastest gun in the Indian territory.” After the parade the students approached Eaton and asked his permission to use his likeness to represent the “Cowboy” of Oklahoma State University. He agreed and a caricature was produced. Over the years that caricature has evolved into this:


After 1924, the Pistol Pete character started appearing on countless shirts, stickers and signs associated with Oklahoma A&M, but Pete still wasn’t the official mascot of the school. That’s where my dinner companion, Dr. Baker comes in.

In 1958 a group of students approached him about the need for a sideline mascot character for football games as other schools had. Dr. Baker took steps to make Pete official and started figuring out how best to make the cowpoke manifest in a bigger-than-life way on sidelines. He ultimately found a company in Dallas that made paper-mache’ heads; sent them a photo of Frank Eaton and a drawing of the most widely used caricature; and this guy was born:


And now you know, “the rest of the story.”