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
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
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
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
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
From A Reader
April 23, 2002 - 8:00 pm
From A Reader
Thank you for your article
about a Ketchikan "institution", Bill Baker. "Good
evening ladies & gentlemen, this is Bill Baker with your
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,
Your columns are wonderful
and just wanted to say thanks.
Debby Frankfourth Otte
April 30, 2002 - 11:30
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
Point Higgins radio station, and frequently bumped into him at
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
A minor correction... Bill's news program was called "Totemland
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
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
And people always delighted in showing out-of-town visitors what
our local TV news looked like. In their cities, they had slicked-down
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
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
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
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.
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