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Ark Valley News

Jim Baker fondly remembers the first time he saw his future wife, Jan. “That was it for me,” he said. He caught a glimpse of her across a crowded library filled with laughing teenagers and chaperons as she walked in the door of the freshman dance at Burrton High School in Burrton. The song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” floated in the air from the record player, and everyone swayed to the twinkling melody’s unforgettable tune. Jan’s silky hair shimmered, and Jim didn’t take his eyes off her. “I said, ‘Man,’” Jim recalled, catching his breath as if he could again see the chestnut-haired girl across the stacks of library books and his classmates. “Wow.”

That was 56 years ago. He and Jan are high school sweethearts with an unwavering devotion to each other. Now, the silky-haired girl’s chestnut locks are silver. Her smooth ivory skin has a few faint laugh lines from years of giggling at Jim’s and the kids’ jokes. Jim’s jolly voice has aged a bit over the years, but his infectious laugh still booms when he hears a good joke. They still lounge on their plush living room sofa in their Valley Center home, holding hands and giggling. Since they started out in life 50 years ago, Jim and Jan have built a business, raised three children and made church, family and Wichita State University baseball the top priorities in their lives--in that order. Later this year, the couple will celebrate half a century of marriage. Their journey together was triggered by that fateful night, a six-year courtship and a little engagement ring that Jim offered to Jan 50 years ago. The time has been magic, Jim said. Just like the night he first noticed Jan.

She was born August 28, 1935. He was born May 8, 1933. They both grew up in Burrton, visited the same dairy where they could trade an egg for an ice cream cone, and attended the same schools for years. Somehow they never noticed each other until the freshman dance. Jim and Jan’s first date was a simple drive with some acquaintances from their high school. Jim asked a female friend to convince Jan to take a car ride with her and a friend. Jan agreed, without knowing that the smart-alecky boy who had seen her across the room at the freshman dance just days before was sitting in the back seat. Jan rode anyway, but the date ended early when Jim tried to take Jan’s hand in his own. “I just thought that that was terribly, terribly aggressive,” Jan reminisced with a touch of humor in her voice. “You were such a smart aleck,” Jan told Jim. “Had I known you had been in the car, I wouldn’t have gotten in.” But Jan said everyone expected the two to eventually date and grow old together. Jan decided Jim was “all right” after his steadfast pursuit. “I guess it was expected, and it just worked out,” she continued.

Jim left Burrton to pursue a college education at Hutchinson Junior College--now Hutchinson Community College--in 1951 after his graduation. He joined the ranks of young American boys set on devoting their lives to U.S. interests overseas. He signed on with the Army as a soldier. Shortly after that, the Army called 20-year-old Jim to active duty. He was sent half of a world away from his family’s Burrton home and Jan. Two years Jim’s junior, Jan stayed in Burrton to finish her high school studies while the boy she’d come to love picked up the pieces of war-torn Korea in 1953 and 1954. The war was over by then, Jim recalled, but the country’s reconstruction had just begun. “It was the aftermath, mopping up stuff,” said Jim. He returned to the States in 1954, armed with valuable life experience and a small engagement ring.

At Burrton’s tiny First Christian Church, in front of the community that had raised the pair and the close friends they’d gained over the years, Jim and Jan Baker were married. The wedding date was Dec. 5, 1954. Everybody in town showed up, Jan and Jim remembered. “There was nothing else going on that day! So everybody just showed up,” Jan explained. “Everyone had an investment in us. But that’s how it is in a small town.” Six months following the couple’s huge community wedding in small-town Burrton, Jim accepted his discharge papers from the Army. He was ready to finish the education he’d started at Hutchinson Junior College just a few years before and pave his way to becoming a successful estate and financial planner and family man. The second phase of Jim’s and Jan’s lives started during the fall of 1955. Jim went back to school but this time paid for courses at Wichita State University. Jim sought a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a life as a successful insurance businessman.

He and Jan had moved away from small-town life in comfortable Burrton in August 1955. They relocated to Wichita, where Jim worked for Cessna Aircraft Company while studying at the college. He finished his term at WSU in three years. He had a degree, a wife, a toddler daughter--born just one year after the couple’s winter wedding--and a 40-hour work week with Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. Over the next several years, the family uprooted and moved across the Midwest. The Bakers lived in Philadelphia for a year in 1964 while Jim trained to take over insurance agencies. Jan stayed home to raise their 7-year-old daughter, son--born in 1959--and youngest daughter, who was born just two years earlier. A year before the Pennsylvania move, the Bakers uprooted their family and relocated to Denver. Their young son, Darren, needed treatment for an asthma complication. Jan said he eventually outgrew the problem. But the Bakers’ goal always was to get back to Kansas, Jan said, near family and friends who had been their support system since the pair first met in 1949. “Family is so important for support,” she continued. The couple returned to Kansas in 1965. That year, Jim started work as a general agent for the Penn Mutual Life Insurance agency in Wichita, where he hired and trained agents. Jan continued raising children, keeping house and supporting her husband’s expanding career. In 1970, Jim became the vice president of Alexander Hamilton Life Insurance Company, an independent life insurance company. And just 10 years later, he started Baker and Associates, his own estate and financial planning practice in Valley Center. Jan and Jim’s oldest daughter, Debi Moody, works for her dad at the small firm, run out of her parents’ basement. Another room on the lower level houses Jan’s oil painting studio. Debi and her husband, Jimmie Moody, live in Valley Center. The Bakers’ youngest daughter, Darla Cook, lives in Newton. Their son, Darren Baker, resides in Wichita.

Moving from town to town in 50 years of marriage required a support system that Jim and Jan had in place for each other. That involved Jim’s willingness to work hard to provide for his family and Jan’s desire to forgo a career outside the home, opting instead to spend 50 years as a wife, mother and homemaker. But in that support system, too, both are careful to include their strong relationship with God. If not for their faith in God, Jan might have lost Jim to a severe heart attack in December. Just a year shy of their 50th wedding anniversary, Jim suffered a heart attack that stopped his heart five times. “He was code blue five times. They lost him five times,” Jan explained. “We are really grateful to the Lord because he is the one that really gave me back my life,” Jim added. Just a few months ago, Jim’s cardiologist said his heart had totally healed. And one week ago, Jim’s eyesight was fully restored. The heart attack had caused temporary blindness. As part of their God-driven support system, the Bakers faithfully attend Valley Center Assembly of God’s early Sunday morning services. But their faith is rooted deeper than their own good will and family. The Bakers take an interest in others’ children, too. Jim and Jan extend their faith to the younger generation through their work with Immanuel Outreach Centre Church of God in Christ Scholarship Ministries of Wichita. The couple helps find funds for the scholarships that typically go to inner-city Wichita kids who might not have a chance to attend college without help from the community. This year, six high school seniors--mostly inner-city kids, Jan said--received the scholarships. The Bakers’ granddaughter, Betsy Moody--a 2004 Valley Center High School graduate and varsity softball player--was one of the scholarship recipients. “We’ve always supported the scholarships as best we could financially,” said Jan. Even in the midst of operating a business, housekeeping, homemaking, spending quality time with God and keeping Jim’s diet free of too much salt and those delectable cookies Jan is known for around her neighborhood, the Bakers manage to find time for fun.

Jan is an aspiring artist. She said she’s “done a little bit of everything art-wise,” including oil painting, calligraphy and watercolor painting. She doesn’t have any formal training in art and didn’t dabble with paints in a high school art class. Burrton High School didn’t have one in 1953. Jan is a self-taught painter who can manipulate splotches of color on a blank canvas into the life-like masterpieces that she proudly displays on her cozy living room walls. She loves to paint landscapes, pets and even a few family portraits. Jan said she could spend hours in her studio. “I go down and turn on the TV for noise so I don’t have to listen to the business, and I can lose myself for hours,” she continued. “I look up and go, ‘Oh! I’ve forgotten to eat!’” “She’s an excellent artist,” Jim interjected. “She always accepts a challenge.” When the Bakers can get away from Baker and Associates, their eight grandchildren, one great-grandson and the children who live on their block, Jan and Jim travel. They’ve seen the world, including Denmark, Switzerland, China and South Africa. And they try to catch every WSU Shocker baseball game they can. Jim has hunted large game extensively in North America, including bears in British Columbia and the Northwest territories. His favorite hunting tale to tell is of his polar bear crusade in the tundra of Alaska. Sometime in the 1970s--Jim doesn’t recall quite when--he flew to Alaska, landed on the frozen sea in an airplane and stalked the great snow-furred giant. He proudly displayed his polar bear’s fur for years in the Bakers’ Valley Center homes. “It was the most memorable hunting experience, for sure,” Jim explained. “It’s a little dangerous.” Today, Jim and Jan are enjoying the quiet of their Valley Center neighborhood, reminiscing about old times and sharing memories from their 50 years together. “I don’t know where the years went,” Jan said. “But the next 50 is going to be better than the last,” Jim added.

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