John Baker was too short and too slight to be a runner for his high school track team but he loved to run. His best friend was tall and lanky and had the perfect build to be a runner but wanted nothing to do with the sport. So John went to the track coach to convince him to let John on the team under the premise that his best friend would follow. John Baker became a runner. The team’s first race was a 1.7 mile cross country run through the hills of Alberquerque. The reigning state champ Lloyd Goff was running the race and so all eyes were on him. Lloyd led the pack as they disappeared over the hills. The spectators waited and then they saw a lone silhouette of a figure running toward them and assumed it was Lloyd Goff. Instead it was John Baker who blew away the field of runners and set a new meet record. When asked how he was able to win, John said he asked himself a simple question, “Am I doing my best?” Still unsure if he was, he fixed his eyes on the runner ahead of him until he passed him and then the next and the next until there was no one left. He committed that nothing was going to distract from giving his best- not pain, fatigue or anything.
As the season progressed John proved that the first race was no fluke. The fun loving teenager became a fierce and relentless competitor who refused to lose. By his junior year, John had broken six meet records and was considered the best miler in the state. His senior season he ran track and cross country, winning state in both. John entered the University of New Mexico in 1962 and he took his training to the next level running 10 miles a day. In 1965, John and his track team faced the most feared team in the country, the USC Trojans. When John’s race came, he purposely led the pack the first lap and then intentionally fell back to fourth. On the turn of the third lap, John collided with another runner vying for position and stumbled, losing valuable time. When he hit the last lap, John dug deep and lived up to his reputation, blowing past the leader to win by 3 seconds.
After graduating, John turned his sights to the 1972 Olympics. In order to have time to train and make a living, he took a job as a track coach at Aspen Elementary in Albuquerque where he had the opportunity to do what he had always wanted- work with kids. Within a few months, he became known as the coach who cared as he invested a great deal of time and effort in working with the kids individually. Not critical but always demanding the best, the kids responded and learned from John.
In May of 1969 just before his 25th birthday, John noticed he was tiring prematurely in his workouts. Two weeks later, he developed chest pains and then awoke one morning with a swollen groin. A doctor’s visit revealed that John had an advanced form of testicular cancer. The only chance was to undergo surgery which revealed the worst, that the cancer had spread. The doctors gave him six months to live and a second surgery was required.
Just before the second operation, John drove to the mountains and intended to end his life by driving off a cliff. He didn’t want his family to have to endure his pain and suffering. But just before he did, he recalled the faces of his students and wondered if they would think that this was the best he could do. That was not the legacy he wanted to live behind. At that moment, he dedicated his life to his kids and decided to give his very best effort in the days which lay ahead. After a summer of surgery and treatments, he returned to school and started a program for handicapped kids to be the equipment managers and coach’s timekeeper. Everyone that wanted to was included. John created a whole list of awards for students he felt deserved recognition, using his own trophies by re-plating them and purchasing fabric with his own money and created blue ribbons at night to give as rewards. All the while John refused pain medication because he feared it would impair his ability to work with the kids. John was asked to work with a small track club called the Duke City Dashers. Several months later, they were a team to contend with. John predicted they would make it to the AAU Finals.
By now John was undergoing chemo and he struggled to keep any food down, his health deteriorated and it became increasingly difficult to make it to practices. Then one day, one of the runners came to John to share the good news: they were going to make it to the AAU Finals. John’s last wish was to be there for it. Unfortunately, it was not to be. A few weeks later on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 26, John died- 18 months after his first doctor’s visit. He had beaten the odds. Two days later, the Duke City Dashers won the AAU Championship.
A few days after his funeral, students at Aspen Elementary began calling their school, John Baker. A movement began and a name change request was sent to the school board. 520 families in the District voted unanimously for the name change. Today John Baker Elementary stands as a testimony to a courageous young man who believed in giving his best effort right down to the very end.
Five years before he was diagnosed with cancer, John wrote this poem:
Many thoughts race through my mind
As I step up to the starting line
Butterflies thru my stomach fly
As I free that last deep sigh
I feel that death is drawing near
But the end of the race I do not fear
For when the string comes across my breast
I know it’s time for eternal rest
The gun goes off, the race is run
Only God knows if I’ve won
My family and friends and many more
Can’t understand what it is was for
But this race to death is a final test
And I am not afraid, for I’ve done my very best
Contributed by Luther Sexton on Mar 30, 2019
Isaiah saw the coming of the great Babylonian armies and knew that they would destroy Jerusalem, take his people captive, and leave the nation in ruin. But in the midst of all this confusion and discouragement, Isaiah received a message from God.