Moline Memories - MHS 66 Friends

Monday, February 6, 2012

Johnny goes marching home again

John F. Baker was in the Class of 1966,
The Class the Stars Fell On.

His decorations -

Johnny goes marching home again:

I sure hope it was enough.

We are now left to trust the love and admiration that were lavished upon Master Sgt. John F. Baker Jr. by his fellow veterans, laborers, police officers and firefighters, city, county and state officials, family, friends, strangers - that all of it was enough to make up for one deeply painful snub.

Baker, the Quad-Cities' only Medal of Honor recipient, passed away Friday. He was with his beloved wife, Donnell, near their home in Columbia, S.C., when his heart failed.

Born in Davenport and raised in Moline, Baker dropped out of Moline High School in 1965 to join the Army and go to Vietnam. He served with such distinction that 10,000 Quad-Citians turned out for a parade in Moline to welcome him home.

Sadly, a few decision-makers never forgave Baker for dropping out. When he was nominated in 2004 for Moline High School's Hall of Honor, he was rejected. Even though school officials had excitedly awarded him an honorary diploma upon his return from war, it wasn't good enough.

Gary Koeller, Moline's principal at the time, added that more than "just a single phenomenon" was expected of a Hall of Honor inductee. [GJ - Only 82 Medal of Honor winners are alive.]

But even before President Lyndon Johnson hung the Medal of Honor around Baker's neck for selflessly saving the lives of eight Americans, the 5-foot, 2-inch soldier was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart. He completed 300 missions as a "tunnel rat," crawling through tunnels and planting explosives where the enemy traveled.

In 1989, Baker retired from the U.S. Army as a master sergeant after serving 24 years. After that, he went to work as a computer analyst for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Columbia, S.C., one of the largest VA hospitals in the country.

He long served as vice president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. And he was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002 to serve on the National Cemetery Association's advisory committee on cemeteries and memorials.

He accepted invitations to speak at more than 1,000 public schools. The Interstate 280 Bridge was renamed Baker Bridge.

He was no one-hit wonder.

But the decision-makers at the high school refused to back off. One of Baker's former stepsons launched a relentless attack, claiming Baker was an alcoholic and was abusive to his mother after returning from Vietnam.

Even after an investigation by a retired FBI agent and a former member of the Secret Service revealed no such darkness in his past, school officials clung to their snubbing.

Ironically, the purpose of the Hall of Honor is: "To honor Moline High School alumni who have achieved distinction and positively influenced the lives of others."

Baker achieved the highest possible distinction in his field, and he positively influenced the eight American soldiers whose lives he saved.

I first met him for an interview at a picnic table at Middle Park in Bettendorf on a Sunday in July 2004.
I was taken at first by his slight build and wondered how he could have managed the enormously physical accomplishments that were attributed to him in the Medal of Honor citation. One of his sisters told how her big brother, "Johnny," used to run around the football field at the high school with dummies over his shoulders. He was training to be a gymnast.

Instead, he dropped out of school and went to war.

Talking to Baker that day, I could see he was emotional, but he wasn't angry. He had been wounded, but he wasn't scarred.

He admitted the slight from the high school hurt his feelings. He was confounded by how badly the committee got him wrong.

I wondered whether he got over it. I spoke to him a dozen more times over the years, and I was so touched when he sent me a Medal of Honor commemorative medallion last year. But I tried to avoid the topic of the Hall of Honor.

Bill Albracht, past president of Vietnam Veterans of America, Quad-Cities Chapter 299, was getting ready to leave for Baker's services at Arlington National Cemetery when I called him Tuesday.

He said a group of veterans had been working on a plan to ask the Moline High School Class of 2012 to "adopt" Baker, have him take part in graduation ceremonies and receive an actual diploma.

He agreed his friend was hurt by the high school's rejection. And he said he hasn't gotten over it, either: the Quad-Cities' greatest hero being told he was not good enough - that his name did not belong among a small collection of respected politicians, business people, actors and athletes.

"But he will rest in peace," Albracht assured, adding that plans are in the works for a local memorial service, complete with a 21-gun salute, taps and the entire veterans' community.

It was a glorious celebration, when Johnny came marching home to the Quad-Cities. It would seem a final salute from that Civil War anthem is in order.

As the lyrics go:

"And let each one perform some part,
"To fill with joy the warrior's heart."

Most of us, thankfully, leapt at the opportunity.

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