100-year-old still logging volunteer hours at Porter Hospital

LONG-TIME PORTER HOSPITAL volunteer Mary Baker will turn 100 on Jan. 13. Baker has logged more than 12,000 volunteer hours since 1980 and has no plans to retire in the foreseeable future. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — This Saturday, Jan. 13, Mary Baker will celebrate her 100th birthday, a magnificent and rare milestone that most can only dream of achieving. And while most other members of that exclusive club lead understandably sedentary lifestyles, Mrs. Baker hates to sit still.
On a recent morning, with her 100th just around the corner, Mrs. Baker was serving her usual four-hour shift as a volunteer greeter and admissions assistant at Porter Hospital. It’s a community service she has faithfully executed since 1980. She puts in another four hours on Tuesdays, making for an eight-hour work week in a “retirement” that has accrued a staggering 12,500 volunteer hours at Porter since she first offered her services during the Jimmy Carter presidential administration.
“I don’t sit in front of a TV, and I never have,” Mrs. Baker said during a brief interview while at her trusty customer service desk near the Porter Emergency Department. “I’ve always worked hard, and so did my husband.”
Longtime Middlebury residents will remember Mary and the late John Baker as the dedicated team behind Baker’s Jewelry Store, which was located at 47 Main St. They established the successful store in 1948 and ran it for 33 years.
The Bakers wanted to remain active in their golden years, and sought ways to help their community. Porter Hospital seemed like a natural beneficiary of their time and talents; Mrs. Baker was a trained nurse. Porter officials initially suggested she re-train to provide direct patient services, but Mrs. Baker didn’t want to take that kind of a professional leap at that point in her life — she was in her 60s. Health care rules at the time precluded her from having a substantial role with patients if she didn’t get the professional training, so she accepted a more limited, but still very important role.
Mrs. Baker became the first in a new era of Porter volunteers that now number around 200. She greets people and directs them to the various departments, services and patient rooms they are seeking when they enter Porter.
“It’s being here for people,” she said of her basic role. “I try to make them feel welcome.”
Mission accomplished, according to folks who have seen Mrs. Baker in action for the past 37 years.
“Her dedication and commitment to the Porter community is inspiring and outstanding,” said Karen Herrmann, Porter’s director of volunteer services.
Mrs. Baker has definitely made an impact on her Porter colleagues, as well as on patients and their families. She’s trained many other volunteers who have followed in her footsteps.
“She’s been an educator and a role model,” Herrmann said.
When she takes her place at her desk, Mrs. Baker always tries to metaphorically put herself in the shoes of the people she is greeting and assisting.
“Everyone coming through that door has a problem, or they wouldn’t be coming here,” Mrs. Baker said.
They might be coming in as a patient, as a person visiting a patient, or as someone who might be getting tested for a potential ailment.
“It’s my job to help them and relieve some of that stress,” she said.
She’s seen a lot of changes in technology, personnel and in the physical space at Porter Medical Center since 1980. Computers are, of course, now standard office equipment — not typewriters and filing cabinets. The hospital now has an electronic translator that allows Porter staffers to communicate with people who don’t understand English. Mrs. Baker is seeing the second and third generations of some families using Porter services. The South Street campus has grown substantially over the years, and she was thrilled to see Middlebury Regional EMS get a new headquarters next door.
Speaking of “next door,” Mrs. Baker is herself a Porter Hospital neighbor. She can watch the ambulances enter and leave the campus, and always hopes for the best possible medical outcome for whomever is admitted.
She continues to relish her volunteer role and has no plans to end her service to Porter.
“I just take it day to day,” Mrs. Baker said. “When I have to, I’ll give it up, which I would hate to do — but so be it.”
Fortunately, that day seems to still be pretty far off.
Mrs. Baker is still as sharp as a tack, remains mobile and loves to cook. She credited a neighbor, Skip Brush, with giving her rides to her Tuesday and Thursday stints at Porter.
She wishes she could still drive, but gave up that privilege voluntarily when she was 90.
“I felt if I had an accident and the report showed my birth date, I would be considered responsible,” Mrs. Baker said.
Her birth year is 1918. Americans were still fighting in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson was in office. Poland declared its independence from Russia.
Mrs. Baker has never smoked nor consumed alcohol, but she doesn’t deny herself any of the foods she loves. She is an unabashed “meat and potatoes” fan. Her desk at Porter last week was festooned with chocolates.
“I get enough exercise with the routine I have,” she said of her fitness.
The Porter Medical Center Community will be throwing Mary Baker a party this week to help her celebrate her birthday.
“I have been very fortunate,” Mrs. Baker said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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