Veteran’s family hopes that even though his voice has fallen silent, his stories will not
If you asked Norman Baker why he took the time to visit schools every year near Remembrance Day, even after his one hundredth birthday, he would tell you the simple reason- “it’s up to me to remind people of some of the things that took place, and why we went over.”
Now, it’s up to someone else to tell his stories.
They’re stories that Sgt. James Norman Baker didn’t want to share when he returned to Canada.
“When I came back, I just wanted to forget it”, Baker told CTV News Toronto in November of 2018. His life stretched through two world wars, born during the first in 1916, and serving during the second. The Toronto-born Baker was originally a member of the reserves, but later saw active service with the Royal Regiment of Canada, spending the latter part of the war in England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
When he returned to Canada, he married his best friend, and together they had four children. He had a successful career in sales, was active in his church, and several times won the “Best Vegetable Award” from the Etobicoke Horticultural Society (his specialty was butternut squash). But in his later years, Baker embraced his past, and began sharing his stories- first with his family, and later with students.
“We were awakened one morning with this loud drone of planes”, more than 70 years later, Baker could clearly remember the sights and sounds of war as he spoke to CTV News Toronto. His daughter Karen said “it was so interesting, in knowing what he went through, and to see the tears in his eyes when he would tell stories.” Along with his memories, Baker had a number of photographs and artifacts (including a grenade), all part of the presentation he gave to hundreds of elementary and secondary students. “It was just very important for him to let the kids know that war is hell” his daughter said, “and that's about the worst swear word he ever used.”
In 2017, Baker met Prince Harry during an Invictus Games event in Toronto, after the royal sought him out in the crowd. Karen says it was important for her father to thank the prince for making it easier for veterans of modern conflicts to be able to talk about their experiences when they returned from war- something he himself could not do. “He told Prince Harry how proud he was of him, and Prince Harry was telling him how proud he was of him- it was a back forth kind of thing. Because, they didn’t have those services when my dad came back.”
Earlier this year, Baker and his wife Eileen celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary with a dinner at the same place they’d spent their wedding night- the King Edward Hotel. It would be their last meal together. The next day, Eileen went into hospital, and within a week she was gone.
Twenty six days later, on the day after the 75th anniversary of D-day, in his 103rd year, Norman Baker died.
For Karen, the first Remembrance Day without her father around is an emotional one. She marked the event by attending his legion branch, to watch the national service on television, remembering her father and “how heartfelt it was for him to see the sorrow and the tragedy and blood, it’s pretty emotional.”
Now she says she plans to work to ensure that even though her father’s voice has fallen silent, his stories and his memories will not.