Flowering tree with Bell Tower in background


Helping Hand

Baker makes historic gift to Ichabods Moving Forward

James and Mary Baker wedding photo

James and Mary Baker

From The Ichabod - Spring 2022
By Brad Porter

When James Baker, ba ’53, got out of the Navy after World War II, he had no money, little education and few prospects. He had dropped out of high school his freshman year to work on his family’s rental farm outside of Solomon, Kansas, and from there decided to join the service. But after discharge, as he was working odd jobs around Topeka, a friend suggested he take advantage of the GI Bill and get a degree. Baker didn’t think any college would be interested in a poor farm kid with a 9th grade education, but Washburn University told him: get your GED and we’ll let you in on a probationary basis.

It wasn’t easy. Even after the GED diploma, Baker struggled his first year at Washburn, finding academic life as difficult and demanding as navigating Navy vessels. But he had some help. He met a woman, Mary Ward, ba ’50, whose background could not have been more different. She was from one of the oldest blue blood families in Topeka. Her descendants, starting with Anthony and Mary Jane Ward, had built a farm on the south side of the Kansas River – known as Ward-Meade Park today – and family lore has it that when early city planners were building Topeka and needed sand for concrete, Mary’s great-great-grandmother let them take it from their property for a nickel a wagon load, helping them amass a family fortune.

Mary had inherited her grandmother’s brightness, and when she and Jim first got together she tutored him through his early math classes. Later, when they were married but struggling to make ends meet, Jim went to his father-in-law for a small loan, an experience he found embarrassing and unpleasant. But the day came when he walked out of Washburn’s married student housing not a high school dropout but a college graduate. He went on to a career in the life insurance industry, raised two sons with Mary and they lived happily together until Mary’s death in 2011.

Long after the kids were grown and the Bakers no longer needed the income from his retirement accounts, Jim and Mary started talking about ways they could give back. Jim could still remember being a struggling student just trying to get through the year, when the future seemed on a knife’s-edge.

“Washburn gave me a good foundation that started my whole career,” Baker recalled. “But I almost didn’t get through it – I needed a little help. That little help went a long way.”

So he’s decided to redirect his IRA required minimum distribution to Washburn every year, eventually creating the endowed James E. and Mary E. Ward Baker Student Emergency Assistance Fund, which will help underwrite small grants given out by Ichabods Moving Forward, Washburn’s student-led philanthropic organization which aids fellow students facing unforeseen financial hardship or sudden emergencies. This will be the largest donation to IMF, and Baker hopes it gives other students a chance to overcome adversity and succeed, like he did 70 years ago. Asking for help is never easy, Baker observed. But it can be the key to unlocking a person’s future.

“When something happens and a student needs a hand, I want this fund to be there for them the way Washburn, Mary and the Wards were there for me,” Baker said.

Spring 2023 Ichabod magazine cover, roses and a rock wall in front of Morgan Hall

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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