Jeff Baker: A Friend In Deed
Brian Philbin, Mar 7, 2017
In Barbershop circles, the Internet has been a flurry of activity over the past five days about our friend, Jeff Baker. He's been ever-present in the minds of many of us since late in 2015 when he was diagnosed with an illness that took his life last week. We've all admired Jeff's vibrant wit, his sense of humor and his positive outlook. The absence of these from the world have suddenly left a hole in the collective heart of our brotherhood.
It should not go without saying that I've been blessed to be able to count both Jeff Baker and his best friend, Rob Menaker, as good friends of mine for the past 31 years. My quartet, Metropolis, owed much of its savvy at International competition and around the Barbershop world to their shared experience and tutelage (not to mention having the Menaker estate as a practice space for half of our rehearsals). Observing these brothers has been an exercise in seeing how a healthy relationship works - one looking out for the other, picking up where one leaves off, finding shared strengths and weaknesses and filling in where the other lacks. Their banter, always shared with laughter and camaraderie, has always been entertaining - hearing their shared spate of phrases like "Don't ever shave," "I know what you were trying to say," "I hate it when that happens" or "That's gonna leave a mark" were a staple of being in their presence. They have remained nearly inseparable for all the time I've known them. Only in the last few months have they had to spend any considerable time apart due to Jeff's move to Houston. These men were truly brothers and it's been a friendship to envy, to be certain.
The last time I spent any considerable time with Jeff, he was concerned with how I was feeling regarding his sporadic responsiveness to my requests to help where I could. I'd wanted to have the opportunity to do something for him for months and his first concern upon seeing me was about what kind of friend he was being - just because he hadn't asked anything of me. It sounds odd when you consider his condition, but that's the kind of thing you learned to expect from Jeff.
To experience Jeff's presence was to consistently be disarmed by his demeanor. If you'd endeared yourself to him, he'd give you a garbled version of your name. Ruby Rhea came out "Rubby Ru-HEE-uh," Pam Pieson was "Pat Pilson," Bonnie McKibbin was "Barney McKrakin." I'll miss being referred to as "Braden Phlamedish" or my wife as "Mrs. Philbish." While not immediately evident to the recipient, it was a sweet and thoughtful thing, as it was something he shared only with you.
He had an unobtrusive manner of questioning things in front of him that - while it seemed normal to you - made him curious about why you were that way. I remember telling him a story while standing next to his wall phone when he was living in Westwood. I had absent-mindedly unplugged the handset and untangled the twisted, extra-long cord and then plugged it back in. He observed this with some fascination, but held it in check until I was done talking before asking with sidelong, raised eyebrows and that sardonic manner of incredulity "Bothering you, was it?" Of course, I had no explanation for my behavior, but his calling it out made me immediately laugh while recognizing that some mild version of OCD was driving my almost unconscious actions.
Jeff was forever in a "Mr. Fixit" mode. There was always something that could be improved and this was evident in all areas of his life. From singing groups to his work at Warner Bros., to his vehicles, which he loved working on, to his home. There was a small area of the back of his garage that included a bathroom when he bought it. It was mostly used as storage and a work area. However, not that long after he and Patty started living there, he'd converted it into the nicest little "Mother-in-Law Apartment" you'd ever seen.
He was a Barbershopper, through and through. He'd enjoyed his father's hobby even as a young boy and insisted on stopping outside of the Kenosha Headquarters on a trip going past there. But it was a weekend and they were closed, so he had a photo taken from the outside. He'd not be able to visit Harmony Hall again until after becoming a champ and, at that moment, the significance of achieving his life's dream overcame him.
As a Barbershopper, he understood how meaningful it was to help others achieve their dreams, as Dr. Greg Lyne had done for him and Nightlife. Jeff was one of the main coaches for Harborlites, as well as many quartets in both the Society and Sweet Adelines International. He graciously shared the wisdom he'd gained from his experience and the guidance of coaches during his years of singing and competing on the International stage.
There is no way to overstate how much he will be missed. His generous spirit, his willingness to help you to achieve, his ability to offer his suggestions without pretense - were all shared with love and a positive spin. These will be less present in our lives, now. But we owe it to ourselves and others to continue to honor his memory with similar gestures. And remembering that he's the guy who inspired those gestures is how he'll continue to live on in our hearts.
Granted, it's going to be tough for a long while. Our love for Jeff and his absence from our plane of existence creates genuine grief for all of us. Because, to paraphrase one of his favorite sayings, "Forever is a long time to miss someone."
And one last time - "Jeff wrote this."
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