Go Jump In! Life Lessons from a True Vandal Family Man
Gary Baker’s full-ride athletic scholarship was on the line in 1964 when he was in a car accident his junior year. However, the talented swimmer wasn’t going to give up on his passion easily.
Prior to the car accident, Baker broke records and helped the U of I swim team win new titles. In 1962, the U of I team swam in the Far West Conference Championship where Baker set six new Idaho individual records and two relay records, and was ninth in the nation in the 400 individual medley (IM). A year later Baker earned an All-America certificate in the 200 meter IM at the NCAA Championships. He helped the team earn their first Big Sky Conference title by breaking three records for both U of I and the Big Sky Conference in the 200 and 400 meter IMs, and the 200 meter butterfly.
His success in swimming “was a great accomplishment. I know Gary was proud of, and very humble about, I am sure family members had no idea how good Gary really was,” said Jim Bronson ‘65, a fellow swim team member. “In 1963 he was tenth in the nation for the 200 yard individual medley”
Two years after the car accident he grew into a leadership role, mentoring younger swimmers – a position he would naturally fill as a swim coach and later as a devoted father.
Life-long relationships were made simple by Baker, who moved in with a houseful of acquaintances during his time at U of I.
As a student, Baker balanced academics and extracurricular activities with fun and frivolity. In 1963, he moved in with a house filled with acquaintances who would become lifelong friends, due in part to his good-natured practical jokes.
Former roommate Hugh Diener ’68 recalls Baker scheming to gather peanut shells to prank another roommate. “So we began collecting peanut shells (from Barry’s Pub). We got home and much to our delight Bronson (the roommate) was in the bathtub soaking, and of course that’s where the peanuts ended up.”
“When I think of Gary and his love for water I think of my grandson’s old yellow lab – when you see water, go jump in,” said James Gissel ’70, another roommate.
Baker graduated in 1967 from the College of Natural Resources and spent his career working the forestry industry as a logging supervisor, a logging sales professional and exporting wood products.
“We, the roommates, contributed slightly to Gary’s forestry career by holding up tree species identification flash cards for his silviculture class,” said Gissel.
“One afternoon we came home to find Baker sitting there with two paper grocery backs chock full of pieces of wood. Here was the California boy smelling, licking and studying closely each piece of wood. What was he doing? Studying for his dendrology class,” recalled Diener.
Baker married a Washington State University alumna and raised two Cougar daughters, proudly wearing silver and gold whenever the family came back to the Palouse. As many Vandals are, he was prone to exploring. Baker traveled with his family and lifelong college friends to scuba-dive, visit family and tour national parks. “The best part of our years during college, working and retiring is that we reconnected for some great times and travels,” Gissel said.
In recognition of his excellence in swimming and dedication to the U of I swim team, Baker was inducted into the University of Idaho Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the charter class of 2008.
After a life filled with rewarding work, high-spirited adventures and strong commitment to his family and friends, Baker passed away from a neurological disease in July 2019.
“My dad’s college days were the best of his life!” said Lisa Waite, Baker’s oldest daughter. “He valued education and hard work so much that it inspires me to do my best and give back to my university – that is what he would have wanted.”