A Saint: Roberta Baker

Roberta Baker was a saint. It is incredible to me how little I appreciated that when we were working together.  As the song says, “I was a young and callow fellow.”  Which sounds nicer than saying I was a jerk, which I pretty much was.  My wife tried working with me for a while and quit: good decision on her part.

Roberta’s ex-husband, Bill Baker, started a veterinary practice in Kennett around 1949.  In those days, most of the veterinarian’s time was spent going from farm to farm working with cattle and hogs.  He had built a small clinic facility for dogs and cats on to the side of their home, but seeing 3 pets in a day was unusual.  Dr. Baker was assisted by Paul Phifer in the field, and Roberta helped in the clinic, and kept the books (and the kids, 2 boys).

Times changed and livestock practice dwindled down to nearly nothing in the Kennett area, making the veterinarian’s job mostly taking care of companion animals.  Other things changed, too.  Dr. Baker took up with a younger gal, leaving Roberta in the lurch.  He wasn’t good about making his alimony payments, either.

At first she rented the clinic to a young veterinarian named Bill Jones, and she worked as his receptionist and assistant. I visited with Bill quite a bit while I was still in school.  He was a pretty decent doctor, but I doubt he paid her any extra.  He took out every other light bulb to save money on electricity.  He re-used paper towels, for heaven’s sake.

Bill left after about six years, and the building was vacant.  Dr. Bill Cato from Jonesboro had been befriended by the Bakers in his youth. He left his own practice in Jonesboro and came to Kennett a couple of days a week to keep some traffic going through the place.  The idea was to keep it marketable for some new veterinarian.

During this time, I had graduated and gone to work for Dr. Creach in Pocahontas, Arkansas.  Roberta appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in starting practice by myself, nor in returning to Kennett.  I missed my chance to be a hero.

And then, about a year later, two things happened.  The first was that my father had suffered a heart attack, and I was doing a lot of driving to Kennett to see about him.  The second was that Dr. Creach decided he couldn’t afford an associate financially (which is another story in itself), and he had to let me go.

Now it seemed that returning to Kennett was my best option for the moment, but instead of being a hero, I had to come to Roberta hat in hand.  She never gloated, just took me in and helped me get started.

I knew basic veterinary medicine and surgery, and I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t know much about working with people.  Roberta knew everybody, and she knew a lot about the human side of running a veterinary practice.  She wasn’t any help with what we’d consider “management” now, but she knew people and their habits.  This one is slow pay, but okay. That one is a deadbeat.  People who start by bad-mouthing the other doctor probably owe him money and they are looking for fresh meat. This other person has dealt with incredible personal problems.

The rent on the clinic and what I paid her were not really enough to be comfortable, and she also gave piano lessons and played piano and organ for weddings and funerals (she was a fine musician).

She was a devout Baptist, and was their church organist for many years.  In later years, when she re-married to Dolph Riggs, he remarked that she was an “open door Baptist”.  “You’ve heard of the Southern Baptists, and the Primitive Baptists, and the Hard-shell Baptists? She’s an open-door Baptist – if the door’s open, she’s there.”

She put up with my temper, and my smart-aleckiness, my Baptist jokes, and my ignorance about life in general. She maintained a pleasant demeanor and kept trying to guide me.  You might think that this was because she needed the income from the clinic.  Maybe it was, a little, but mostly it was because she was a saint.

Most people who get divorced have a lot of bad things to say about their ex.  Dr. Baker had left her for a younger woman and was pretty bad about not paying his alimony. The worst thing I ever heard her say about the situation was, “I don’t know what happened.  We used to have such fun.”

The closest I ever heard her come to making an unkind remark was about an old fellow who had lost both legs from complications related to diabetes.  She said, “Well, if it had to happen to somebody, it might as well have been Walter.  He never did anything but sit in a chair and watch TV anyway.”  That sounds pretty cold, doesn’t it?  What you don’t know is that she went to Walter’s house and checked on him every single night.  Once in transferring from his wheelchair, he had fallen and had spent the night lying there like a turtle on its back.  She wanted to be sure he never spent another night like that.

When I decided to computerize the practice, she just didn’t think she could deal with it.  It was a time when for most people, a personal computer was a mysterious black box, slightly evil, possibly prone to exploding.  We continued with the manual invoicing system for a while, and she would enter the transactions into the computer at day’s end when nobody was waiting and watching.  She really didn’t want to, but she got the hang of it, and made fewer mistakes in a week than we had made daily on the old system.

She helped me for several years, until she married Dolph Riggs.  They had a lot of fun until he became ill, and she nursed him until the end. I’m happy to say that we had a good relationship for the rest of her life.

It is incredible to me how little I appreciated what she did for me (at the time).  Roberta helped me so much more than I knew.  What I wouldn’t give to have such a person helping me again.  You hear people say that they were “touched by an angel”.  I was certainly touched by a saint.

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