Title: H.L. Baker leaving as dean of students at AU
After four decades of dedicated service to Anderson University, H.L. Baker will retire in July. For a man whose life revolves around student life, leaving will be no easy task. "I’ve never disliked coming to work," he says. "I think I’ll miss being associated with a good place and people I work with. I’ll miss feeling like I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I’ll really miss the contact with young people."
The university will miss him as well. From financial aid counselor (a job which lasted more than 10 years) to dean of men, assistant dean, associate dean, dean of student services and then dean of students, Baker has risen through the ranks within the department, paying attention to both policy and people along the way.
President James Edwards remembers Baker was the person who sat down with him, in a little office on the back of Old Main, and helped him figure out his financial aid package. In fact, that’s where Baker’s career began — as the university’s first financial aid counselor.
"The government was involved in funding higher education in 1958 when the National Defense of Education Act was passed," Baker recalls. "They started pouring money into schools. We didn’t have a specific program here for financial aid, but we had a little bit of scholarship money." So Baker started AU’s financial aid program, coordinating loans and scholarships and helping students find part-time jobs.
"I had a business major. I intended to work in business, and I had some great job offers with some good companies," Baker explains. His wife, Sandy (Moore) Baker, had another year yet to finish her degree, so it made sense for him to stay at the college, too. "I didn’t dream I’d be here one year, let alone 40 years. But I’ve never seriously considered going anywhere else," he says.
Affectionally dubbed "H" by friends and colleagues, Baker’s strong connection with and love for college students remains his greatest gift to the department. "One of H’s greatest strengths is availability," says Linda Cummins, associate dean of students. "In the 18 years I’ve worked at AU, he has always had time for each person." Though some students wouldn’t have readily admitted it during their academic experience — those in particular who knew Baker’s disciplining hand as well as his disciplining heart — they often return to tell him how grateful they are for his leadership, a testimony to the depth of his care for students. Some of those visits included life-changing conversations for alumni. . . and for Baker.
"Some time ago, a local businessman came into my office and told me that he had cheated on timecards [as a student] and was paid for a lot of work he didn’t do," Baker says. "He wanted to get that reconciled, so he came to me. I said, ‘Well, I appreciate the fact that you’ve acknowledged it, but we can’t go back; it’s water under the bridge.’ But that wasn’t good enough for him. So I said, ‘You can calculate how much it was, calculate the interest if you want, and just write a check, and that will square it away.’ That wasn’t good enough either. He said, ‘I want to work it off.’ So he calculated how much he owed the school and how much people were being paid, and then he worked for physical plant as a groundskeeper. Just because he wanted things squared away between God and himself. That’s one of those things I know I won’t forget."
Some of Baker’s other memorable moments are a bit more lighthearted, like when Baker participated in the annual wheelbarrow race during Homecoming week 2000. Each resident assistant (RA) of South Campus, Tara East and Mansfield apartments asked a staff or faculty member to ride or "drive" the wheelbarrow for the race. South Campus RA Jill Renner chose Baker. They didn’t win, but they had fun, despite a few bumps along the way. With Baker precariously balanced inside the wheelbarrow, Renner stumbled close to the finish line and dumped Baker onto the ground. He jumped up, took a bow, grabbed a hug from Renner and then grabbed a hot dog with the rest of the students who gathered to watch the festivities.
"That’s just H. He enjoys a good laugh and likes to have fun," says Renner. "Sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine him having to be the big disciplinarian because he’s such a fun-loving, easy-going person."
Baker’s approachable nature is what makes him the most effective in his accountability role. AU Board of Trustee member, alumnus and Anderson-area Judge Dennis Carroll serves as chair of a committee that oversees several departments, among them Student Life. He agrees that Baker’s unique combination of encouragement and firmness set him apart as an exceptional leader in the campus community.
"It takes a special person to be able to hold students accountable and offer discipline while still illustrating the grace of Christ," Carroll says. "H.L. is such a man. He gives advice without judging or manipulating others; he is forthright without being oppressive. Students who have experienced his controlled discipline will admit that they don’t see him in a harsh light. He’s respected because he cares, and he models the kindness and gentleness Christ showed in his example."
Amid the counseling, consoling, and occasional correction that Baker provides, he says his greatest support comes from his wife. "Her willingness to be available when students have needs is great," Baker adds. And she will admit that the Baker household has an open-door policy. "H.L. often knows when kids don’t have a place to stay during breaks, over the holidays and summers, and our home, at times, has been a place to stay for short or long periods of time," she says.
Such is the philosophy of a man whose love for students is so great. However, of all the positions he’s held at AU, Baker says that dean of students has been the toughest. "When Jerry Grubbs was here and I was the assistant dean, he was doing the administrative work, and I was seeing students a lot more than I do now. I don’t think this job fits my personality as well, but I’m happy with it. I just try to be more intentional about staying involved with students."
Staying involved has meant changing with the times during the past 40 years. "Students, in the long haul, are basically no different. Some things have changed but they’ve equalized themselves. I tend to believe that most things students work on are ultimately spiritual in nature and just trying to find one’s self, feeling a sense of worthiness and acceptance and belonging. Those are basic needs I think we had in the 50s and 60s, and they’re just as true today. They’ve transcended time."
Some would argue Baker is the one who’s transcendent. His youthfulness is rivaled only by the students you’ll catch him bantering with in Decker Commons. While he is responsible for overseeing all things “student life” — including on- and off-campus housing, student policies, Campus Activities Board (CAB), AU student government, chapel/convocation attendance and general student needs — he still finds time to enjoy the "simpler" things in life, like racing up and down the sidelines of home football games as a member of the 10-yard marker "chain gang." Baker is also active, along with his wife, in their congregation at North Anderson Church of God, working with the 4-year-old class on Wednesday nights.
His post-dean days include hopes of starting a tee-ball league for little kids in the area and the possibility of remaining involved at AU as a part-time athletic coach. He also hopes to spend more time with family, including his two adult children — Becky Baker BA ’87 and Brent Baker BA ’85 — and his three grandchildren.
--Joy May is a staff writer for Signatures, AU's quarterly Alumni Magazine.