Wineka column: Tommy and Clara learned how to dance

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 3, 2011

SALISBURY — By now you’ve heard that Kim Kardashian and her new husband, NBA player Kris Humphries, are Splitsville after 72 days.
I’m sure the breakup and pending divorce has left young Kris asking, “Dude, where’s my Kardashian?”
I’ve had goldfish live longer than 72 days, which is why you should know about Tommy and Clara Baker.
Wednesday was their 70th wedding anniversary.
That’s 70 years, not 70 days.
“We came along before you were allowed to switch,” 90-year-old Tommy Baker explained once.
The Bakers met in 1940, around Christmas, when Tommy accompanied his fellow Navy buddy Ralph Caldwell to Asheville, Ralph’s hometown.
That night the men were supposed to double-date, with Tommy lined up to impress a girl named Sis Ballard. But Tommy refused to even go on the date with Ballard after he met Ralph’s sister, Clara.
Tommy and Clara went dancing on their first date, and after a mostly long distance romance, were married less than a year later on Nov. 2, 1941. A magistrate in Charleston, S.C., did the honors, which upset Tommy’s mother, a devout Catholic, so much that she hung up on her son after he delivered the news.
She later wrote the chaplain on Tommy’s ship and requested that he remarry the couple. Father Donald Francis Kelly hitched Tommy and Clara again on Jan. 19, 1942.
This was wartime, of course, and the Bakers had precious little time together until the Japanese surrendered. They made Charleston their home base during and after the war.
Lisa Baker Clark says her grandfather served on four different Naval ships and is remarkable to this day for what he remembers.
“He can tell you — in great detail — everything about every battle in which he was involved,” Lisa says. Tommy saw a lot of the heaviest fighting in the Pacific Theater.
The same day Kim Kardashian announced her marriage was kaput, I received an email from Lisa, telling me about her grandparents’ pending 70th anniversary and a party she had planned at her home in Salisbury this Saturday.
I couldn’t help but see the irony.
But for reasons I’ll explain soon, Lisa wavered at first about sending me the email.
Tommy Baker built two careers, one in the Navy and one with the U.S. Postal Service. Clara stayed at home, running the household and managing their two boys, Jerry and Donald. After retirement from the post office job, Thomas also worked as an accountant.
The Bakers eventually moved to Alamance County, where son Jerry lived. But after Jerry died in 2005 at age 62, the family also noticed that Clara’s mind was slipping. It was Alzheimer’s.
About three years ago, Tommy took over the complete care of Clara — a big change, because “she had waited on him hand and foot,” Lisa says. Clara always had done the cooking, cleaning, shopping and washing of clothes.
“He had to learn how to do all that, and did,” Lisa says.
Two years ago, Lisa and her husband, Bill, invited her grandparents to take up residence in the house they owned in Milford Hills right beside theirs. Tommy jumped at the chance.
He was quite protective of Clara, allowing only Lisa and Bill and their three children to stay with her if he had to run an errand. When the children stayed, Clara thought she was baby-sitting them, but it was really the kids looking after her.
Tommy gave a visiting home service a chance — twice — until he went back to doing it himself.
“Nope,” Thomas told Lisa, “it’s my responsibility. I said, ‘It’s ‘for better or worse.’ ”
Whenever Tommy and Clara visited Lisa’s home, they often would dance to the 1940s music Bill had put in his jukebox for them.
Lisa says her grandparents were inseparable and always looking for an excuse to dance with each other. She also has always been impressed by her grandfather’s courage to try new technology.
When he was in his early 80s, he attended classes so he could learn how to use computers because, he told Lisa, “This Internet thing might catch on.”
He has his own laptop now, which gave him greater flexibility in sticking close to Clara.
It was a Sunday when Clara fell.
She bounced back quickly, and everything seemed great the next day. But it was a Tuesday — last Tuesday — when Tommy could not rouse his wife in the morning, and she died later that day.
Lisa’s party Saturday was supposed to celebrate the couple’s 70th anniversary and Clara’s 89th birthday, which would have been next Monday. Instead, all the friends and family they expected to see at the party came instead to last week’s funeral.
Lisa had composed her email about Tommy and Clara before Clara’s fall and as a way of inviting me to write a story about her special grandparents.
“I started to trash the email, but I decided that it was still worth sending — even if only to make myself feel better,” she wrote.
Tommy and Clara Baker were married almost 25,550 days.
They never wanted to switch.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@