Jack of all trades: UNF holds the latest career for octogenarian working as a maintenance mechanic

Noor Ashouri

Baker’s self-proclaimed talent is grocery shopping, with coupons as his weapon. Photo by Noor Ashouri
Dale Baker’s self-proclaimed talent is grocery shopping, with coupons as his weapon.
Photo by Josh Brangenberg

Dale Baker comes into the lobby of the lockshop, a folder of old pictures in hand. He introduces himself and jumps to say he’s not sure why I want to interview him. I tell him everyone has a story. But Dale Baker has more than just one.

He shows me a page with three black and white pictures on it. In one picture, Baker stands tall in a cargo jacket. Here, Baker is a 21-year-old soldier in Korea, baking hams, frying eggs, and roasting turkeys for soldiers.

In another picture, Baker wears a suit, tie tucked into his jacket. His hair is trimmed short and a smile rests on his face. Baker is in Waterloo, Iowa, where he works at a meatpacking company called The Rath Packing Company and cuts over 6,000 hogs a day. Baker shows me his right hand where, decades later, scars are still visible.

Baker worked at Rath for 34 years until the company went bankrupt. It was Baker’s 25th wedding anniversary when Rath went down, and he wasn’t the only one devastated. Rath employees could see seven physciatrists free of charge. However, Baker never went to them and never managed to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary.

Dale Baker in Waterloo, Iowa, when he worked at The Rath Packaging Company. Photo courtesy Dale Baker
Dale Baker in Waterloo, Iowa, when he worked at The Rath Packaging Company.
Photo courtesy Dale Baker

“I told ‘em I’m gonna go try to find me a job,” Baker says.

Enter UNF, his home for the past 29 years.

At 81 years old, Baker is a maintenance mechanic. The job entails changing ceiling tiles, hanging up plaques and bulletin boards, fixing leaks, and painting rooms.

“We’re ‘keep the place going’ type people,” Baker says.

I hesitantly ask Baker what it’s like being 81 years old, considering the nature of his job.

“It’s like being old!” Baker says. “I try to keep a really good sense of humor. I go around every once in awhile and tell a joke.” Baker used his self-proclaimed joke-telling talents on me, a move his co-worker Greg Swisher predicted.

“He probably told you a couple [jokes],” Swisher said. But he did more than just tell a joke. He shuffled through the drawer of the desk behind him and handed me a typed-up joke.

Baker’s humor does not go unnoticed. I asked Alex Davis, Maintenance Supervisor and Baker’s boss, to give me three words to describe Baker. He said, “Funny, funny, funny.”

“He is actually the clown,” Davis said. “You would think he’s the youngest one in the room.”

Baker points to the bulletin board behind him at a picture of him from his 80th birthday. His UNF community threw him a surprise birthday party in the breakroom.

“There was a lot of people in there and I knew every one of them,” Baker says. “It just never dawned on me they were going to do something like this.”

Baker went to college for two years after he got out of the army. Photo by Noor Ashouri
Baker went to college for two years after he got out of the army.
Photo by Josh Brangenberg
Dale Baker as a soldier in Korea. Photo courtesy Dale Baker
Dale Baker as a soldier in Korea.
Photo courtesy Dale Baker

UNF isn’t Baker’s first college experience. He went to college for two years after he got out of the army. He says he majored in nothing.

“My buddy wanted to go to college but he didn’t want to go alone. So I volunteered,” Baker says.

“Was it fun?” I say.

“Yeah. All them girls!” Baker says.

“All them girls” soon became one girl. In the last picture, Baker has his arm around a woman wearing a one-piece bathing suit. This woman is Minniebell, named after her mother’s best friend’s love for Mickey Mouse.

“I couldn’t live with that,” Baker says. “I just call her Bell.”

The picture was taken before their wedding, but she is now Baker’s wife of 54 years. Baker met her while waterskiing at a lake with a friend.

“Her and her girlfriend was watching us water ski,” Baker says. “At that time, I was drinking [beer].”

Baker spotted the two watching from their car and made a bold move.

“I got up, opened the door of the car, and sat between the two of them,” Baker says.

“‘Aren’t you gonna introduce him?'” Baker’s now wife said to her friend.

“‘I can’t. I don’t know who he is,’” she said.

Dale Baker with wife, Minniebell. Photo courtesy
Dale Baker with wife, Minniebell.
Photo courtesy Dale Baker

Since then, the two have contributed to their share of the household. Bell sews all of Baker’s pajamas, and Baker’s self-proclaimed talent is grocery shopping. His weapon is coupons.

“Coupons back in the ol’ days, you could get all kinds of coupons,” Baker says. He tells me a story of how he once paid 18 cents for four rolls of toilet paper. Baker outsmarted the “36 limit” by bringing his daughter, and he went home with 72 rolls of toilet paper.

Besides being a smart grocery shopper, Baker seems to be a smart worker. He gets to work at 6:30 a.m. everyday, a half hour early.

Swisher said Baker doesn’t let his age affect what he can do.

“We have to climb vertical ladders to get on the roof,” Swisher said. “He will still climb vertical ladders.”

Nor does he let his age get in the way of learning something beyond his time. Baker says he’s not very good with technology, so he struggles with the electronic device they receive orders on. However, within 30 days of their implementation, Davis said Baker had the highest usage of the device.

All his hard work has him begging for some relaxation. He hopes to retire before the year is up. His only issue: retiring will cost him $925 a month.

“What are you going to do when you’re retired?” I say.

“I hope nothing,” Baker says.

Other than “majoring” in it, Baker isn’t too familiar with the concept of “nothing.” He puts purpose into everything he does, whether it’s coupon hunting or roasting turkeys. Knowing him, he will likely find purpose behind even “nothing.”

*8/12/14 at 3:43 p.m. – updated with photos mentioned in story.

Email Noor Ashouri at [email protected]