Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


A Fond Profile: BILL BAKER
By June Allen


April 23, 2002
Tuesday - 12:20 am

Fourteen years ago this past Sunday, Bill Baker died: April 21, 1988. Ketchikan lost one of its most beloved, and in a few cases, not-so-beloved newsmen. But no one can deny that he was one of the town's great characters! Big and shambling with a voice like a nasal foghorn, he was a little unkempt, bald, and he had a face that was a pink-nosed combination somewhere between Winston Churchill and a newborn baby. He had edited the old Ketchikan Chronicle before it went under back in the '50s, took a variety of other jobs, and freelanced ads in handwritten newsletters - which people always paid for and read! He also made great smoked salmon.

I knew who Bill Baker was almost from the moment I came to Ketchikan. That was because he did his daily "Hometown Reporter" segment of the news on local television - weren't the call letters KATV? - back when the TV station was located on Main Street. I worked for the Daily News then, and soon realized that Bill Baker read only slightly reworded versions of what I - or other Daily News writers - had written that very day! My suspicion was confirmed when I made a pretty bad error in a story one day and Bill blithely read it through on the air, error and all, for the six o'clock TV news viewers.

But "blithely" is perhaps not an appropriate word to use for Bill Baker as he read his personally edited versions of other people's stories but also, I must admit, his very own stories that he picked up on Front Street. Bill could tell us with meticulous accuracy which fishing boat was at which dock, which one had a load of what kind of fish - what it sold for and who of his old friends was skipper - or crew. There were those who said he got his stories from the bottom of beer glasses in Front Street bars, but he got 'em, and got 'em right. Most of the time.

But back to "blithely." When Bill Baker read the news, he sat hatless under that bright TV light and seemed to be completely unaware of those who were viewing the telecast. He read in that eye-watering adenoidal voice in a steady stream of words which sometimes suggested complete absorption in what he was reading. But then, his small finger would wander to his ear canal where he mined until he pulled it out again to check if he had found the source of the itch. Sometimes he scratched - elsewhere. Right on camera! I often wondered if people watched him to hear the news or watch to see what he'd do next.

I didn't actually meet Bill Baker, except maybe in passing at a bar, until I went to work for the Chamber of Commerce in 1973. The chamber had decided to spearhead the new Gravina Airport dedication celebration and hired two people - me and Bill Baker - to share the promotion and writing, etc. With due respect to the present chamber, and any earlier chamber members who may be reading this story, this is how it worked back then: for three months work, Bill and I would each be paid $2,500. The catch was, we had to raise our pay ourselves, a total of $5,000! I had sudden second thoughts about that, but Bill assured me: No problem. He'd do the fund raising, I could do the writing.

And he did it! In fact, he raised that first $5,000 so quickly and seemingly so easily that the money-starved chamber of the time gave it to the chamber's visitors and convention committee (this was before there was a Visitors Bureau) and told Bill to go out a repeat his miracle. He did! He'd come in to the office about 5:00 every day, a little unsteady on his feet, his presence reminding those of us who were office-bound of famous breweries we had - or hadn't - visited. From his stretched and sagging coat and pants pockets he would pull out wads and rolls of crumpled bills and drop them on the manager's desk to be counted. It didn't take long until the additional money was raised and Bill was free to go back to his regular waterfront beat.

I asked Bill Baker once when he had first come to Alaska. He said he went first to Sitka in 1929. I remembered that date only because it was the year I was born. He told me he was a college youth then and I regret not writing down or even remembering what else he said. It never occurred to me that I, or anyone else, would be interested so many years later. This "interest in the past" is comparatively recent. And it should be a reminder to everyone to respect and preserve their pasts, in writing, somewhere!

The last time I saw Bill Baker was shortly before he died. He'd been living in an apartment above the Mission Street Bon Marche building, with its very high staircase from the upper floors. He had to be 80 at least, and a well-worn 80 at that. I said hello to him as he came out the door and onto the sidewalk He answered politely but with a bewildered expression. I don't think he knew who I was. He was very shaky, sliding one foot in front of the other along the sidewalk as he made his slow way toward the dime store. His face had always had an ageless look but now it was loose and sagging, weighting him down.

Only weeks later we read of his death, in his bed, where he lay for far too long before someone noticed his passing. It broke my heart. He was a character, but he was ours - respected and appreciated for just what he was. He was our one-of-a-kind Bill Baker.


Comments From A Reader
April 23, 2002 - 8:00 pm

Thank you for your article about a Ketchikan "institution", Bill Baker. "Good evening ladies & gentlemen, this is Bill Baker with your bedtime
news." I can still hear his voice and see his often unsteady self sweating under the lights at the studio.

My mom worked with Bill on the Chronicle. I think she did the billing and answered the phones. I was pretty young then, but still like the smell of newsprint.

Two of us young women were invited to the re-opening of the Yes Bay Lodge in the late sixties. Bill was there to cover the event, as was a
photographer from the State. We got to spend two days out there and I'm sure there were mists in Bill's eyes...not from the weather, you understand.

Your columns are wonderful and just wanted to say thanks.

Debby Frankfourth Otte


Comments From A Reader
April 30, 2002 - 11:30 pm

I just read your SITNEWS story about my old friend and KTKN/KATV co-worker Bill Baker. Your wonderful, sensitive story about Bill's life brought many memories of our KTKN days flooding back.

I first ran into Bill around 1964. I was stationed at the Coast Guard's
Point Higgins radio station, and frequently bumped into him at various
bars around town as he gathered news and prepared for his nightly broadcasts. I got to know him better when I was hired at KTKN to do weekend dee-jay work back in 1966.

I left town for a few years, and came back in 1969 and took over KTKN's morning show (guys before me included Keith Kermit and Brad-Cole, remember?).

A minor correction... Bill's news program was called "Totemland Topics",
and it aired nightly at 9:45 pm. Bill never did the 6 pm news - that was done by Bob Dorn, Neil Gray, myself and, later, by others.

Bill was a Ketchikan "institution" for many years... many people told me
that they wouldn't go to bed until they had heard Bill Baker's news show.
And people always delighted in showing out-of-town visitors what our local TV news looked like. In their cities, they had slicked-down hair,
sparkling smiles, and fancy clothes and graphics... we had Bill Baker, his bald head, and halibut jacket.

Bill was the fastest two-fingered typist I've ever seen. He once told me
that he never learned to type, but watching him burn up the keyboard of
his old Royal with two fingers said otherwise. He was very proud of his son, Bill. He would always tell me about how he was doing in college, etc.

Bill's rough exterior caused many to overlook the fact that he was really
a very kind-hearted, intelligent, talented guy. Bill and I once had a good-natured "feud" going on. We shot barbs back and forth between our radio shows. Bill used to leave his nightly news scripts for us to re-use in the morning. In one of those scripts, one day, two lines just happened to rhyme.

I accused him of bucking for a nomination as State Poet Laureate, and started calling him Bill "Greenleaf" Baker. Bill shot back by writing the entire next day's news in rhyme, and began leaving me daily poetic barbs. I think I may still have a couple of those poems back in my dusty archives.

I also have what I think may be the only existing tape of one of Bill's
old "Totemland Topics" shows from the early 70's. In Bill's honor, I played bits and pieces of it on my April 1st Fats & Gang morning show on KFMJ. If a few people were stopped in their tracks by the 30-year old news stories and the commercials for non-existant businesses, I think Bill would have liked it.

Bob Kern


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