Bill’s mother, Helen M. Baker, had a considerable influence on him. She married Harold Baker in 1912, and in 1913, the couple purchased a 235-acre farm in Maryland, where they lived from then on. After a few difficult years as general farmers, Helen decided to try raising breeder turkeys. She ultimately became the premier turkey breeder in the United States. When Bill was growing up, he watched as she used various chemicals to treat diseases in her turkeys, which undoubtedly stimulated his interest in chemistry. Helen later wrote a very popular book on turkey breeding, which she dedicated to William.
A simple man who wanted no fancy clothes, cars, or other trappings of wealth and power, Bill was extremely attentive to the people with whom he worked, regardless of their organizational titles. He was always open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, and new people. He was a true innovator and “catalyst,” who motivated and changed everyone with whom he came in contact. Indeed, self-effacing people like Bill who devote themselves to higher pursuits seem to be an endangered species these days. He guided research at Bell Labs through some extremely productive years, championing digital switching and optical communication and steering the Bell system through the razzle-dazzle of digital and electronic technology.
As a young man, Bill enjoyed sailing. He also loved poetry and would frequently quote it in his presentations. Thus, the words of Walt Whitman seem appropriate to memorialize the accomplishments of this extraordinary man:
Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.
From Whitman’s poem Passage to India
Note: This memorial tribute is based on materials on the William O. Baker website (williamobaker.org), which was created with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The site includes a biography, list of publications, extracts from selected manuscripts, list of awards, photographs, interviews, and other materials documenting and celebrating Baker’s life and accomplishments.