Baker: Happy days, high expectations

By Bella English
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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For Charles Baker, it couldn’t have been a more charmed childhood: loving parents, the homes in Needham, then in Rockport, the three boys who had jobs delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and pumping gas. The calendar was stuffed with sports, school performances, church choir, and family vacations. There was a family mutt named Sam Dog.

Young Charlie played football in the fall, hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring. He and his friends rode their bikes everywhere. On Coolidge Avenue, where he lived, children would “run from one end of the street to the other through everyone’s backyard’’ until their mothers called them in for dinner.

“We played tons of street hockey, and I shoveled a lot of snow and raked a lot of leaves,’’ said Baker, the eldest son and the fourth generation of “Charles Bakers’’; his son is the fifth.

When you tell him that his childhood seems too perfect, he doesn’t disagree. “It was pretty all-American,’’ he said.

If Baker ever got into trouble as a boy — even a fight — it left no footprints. He was a good, though not brilliant, student and a good, though not brilliant, athlete. He was born on Nov. 13, 1956, in Elmira, N.Y. where his father was a buyer for Westinghouse. His mother, Betty, stayed home until her youngest son went off to junior high school.

Theirs was a “mixed marriage,’’ as Baker often likes to say on the campaign trail: she was the liberal Democrat, her husband the more conservative Republican, which made for lively, and mandatory, dinner table conversation.

“We were expected to show up and have something to say,’’ said Alex Baker, the youngest of the three boys. “What were the five best books ever written? Who was the most influential thinker in the 20th century? It was expected that we have opinions about things and that we would think about things.’’ (All of the Baker boys quickly learned that Al Gionfriddo made “the miracle catch’’ in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series).

If the Bakers — Charles, now 53; Jonathan, 52; and Alex, 49 — found the dinner table fun, their friends often did not. “Oh my God, it was mortifying,’’ said Mindy D’Arbeloff, who grew up with Baker and is deputy finance director of his campaign. “Mr. Baker would go around the room and say, ‘What do you think about that?’ For us, it was like sitting in the front row of class.’’

Charlie Baker remembers his parents “really getting right into it’’ at these dinnertime discussions, on Supreme Court decisions and other issues. “The big lesson was that you can disagree without being disagreeable.’’

Smart and opinionated, Betty Baker had “pure, unconditional love for everyone,’’ said John Dell’Erario, who was Charlie’s closest friend in high school. “She really made you feel your opinion meant something.’’ His father was “very bright, very challenging, driven.’’

“You smash those two things together, and you get Charlie,’’ said Dell’Erario, who later roomed with Baker in business school at Northwestern. He recalled that young Baker would often advise him: “Be hard on the issues and soft on the people.’’

Still, with two younger brothers, whom he both tortured and treasured, Baker has long had a healthy competitive streak. Dell’Erario recalled one dinner at which Charles Baker threw out the question: “What is the role of the president?’’ Charlie blasted out of his seat and yelled: “To shape the agenda!’’ before anyone else could utter a word.

But he could be caring, too, his brothers say.

Jonathan Baker recalls being taught how to ride a bike at about age 5 — by Charlie. “He decided it was time for me to learn,’’ said Jonathan, dean of college counseling at Worcester Academy. So his big brother put a helmet on him, propped him up on a bicycle, and sent him down the backyard slope. “I would wobble and find my way to the fence and topple over,’’ Jonathan said. “Charlie was there to help me up, encourage me, and take me back up to the edge of the lawn.’’

Ask his brothers for childhood highlights and they both mention Charlie catching the winning touchdown pass in the ninth grade against archrival Newman Junior High. There was also the fourth-grade solo he sang, “I Wonder As I Wander,’’ on Christmas Eve at Needham Congregational Church. “I still think that is Charlie’s finest hour,’’ laughed Alex, who works for Partners HealthCare System.

In 1969, the family headed to Washington, where Charles was named assistant secretary of transportation in the Nixon administration. They returned to Needham when Charlie was halfway through the eighth grade.

By his sophomore year, Baker was a string bean: 6-foot-2 and 150 pounds. Though he loved hockey, he said, “it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to play.’’

After his sophomore year, he quit football to concentrate on basketball and as a 6-foot-5 senior center made the regional all-star team. On the track team, he competed in the high jump and threw the javelin.

The Baker boys were expected to work. Charlie and Alex had a paper route together in elementary school, and in Washington, they delivered the Post. “Sunday was just agony,’’ he recalled. “It was literally like carrying around Encyclopedia Britannicas.’’

In high school, he pumped gas at a Mobil station, cut grass and was an usher at Needham Cinema: “I saw ‘The Sting’ about 35 times and ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and ‘Billy Jack’ about 50 times.’’

But his favorite job was covering high school sports for the Dedham Daily Transcript. After he graduated from Harvard, he nearly took a reporting job in Casper, Wyo. “but I couldn’t see going that far from home.’’

Baker’s first elected position was to the student council at Needham High School, where he made A’s and B’s, “probably more B’s than A’s.’’ English, history and social studies interested him; chemistry “nearly did me in.’’ He and Jonathan joined DeMolay, an international boys’ club affiliated with the Masons. His junior year, Charlie rose to the head leadership position.

Mary Tibma, a friend who went to her senior prom with Baker, was a member of the counterpart girls’ organization. “We’d do things like car washes and build floats for the Fourth of July parade,’’ she said. “I watched him as he motivated this group of guys. His enthusiasm was really contagious.’’

That enthusiasm, combined with “a quick wit,’’ contributed to him getting into some “very innocent teenage mischief,’’ adds Tibma. “He’s a good time, no doubt about it. He has a great sense of humor.’’

Though even-tempered, Baker could lose it on occasion. Dell’Erario remembered one screaming match with a roommate. “His jugular was 6 feet out of his neck,’’ said Dell’Erario. “But it never got personal.’’

At Needham High, Baker received the Harvard Prize Book, awarded to outstanding juniors by the Harvard Alumni Association. Though his father had gone to Harvard on the GI Bill, his son wasn’t sure he wanted to follow. He also applied to Brown, Colby, Hamilton, and the University of Rochester.

In the end, he chose Harvard “because of the brand’’ — something he remains ambivalent about. For the fifth college reunion book, he wrote: “Do I miss Harvard? Not for a second.’’ He added: “With a few exceptions . . . those four years are ones I would rather forget.’’

As a 6-foot-6 freshman, he played junior varsity basketball and made B’s and C’s. “I said, what the hell, this place is expensive, I should suck it up and do better,’’ he recalled. He didn’t play basketball his sophomore year, focusing on his studies. “I never did crack the A category there, but I got rid of the C’s.’’

He became the assistant coach of the JV team his senior year and said he loved coaching freshmen “who were every bit as out of place as I was when I was a freshman.’’

“Place’’ was his problem at Harvard. He joined the Delta Upsilon club, but didn’t spend much time there. Though he made friends on the basketball team and in his dorm, he never felt he fully fit in.

“I don’t think Charlie ever felt at home at Harvard,’’ said his brother Alex, who also went to Harvard. “It’s a complicated place to go to school.’’

Baker said, “I had trouble figuring out how to fit in.’’ While in college, Baker, an English major, worked as a bouncer at the Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square and spent summers at a welding supply and bottled gas company in Quincy. His Harvard friends describe him as affable and unpretentious, fond of a beer and crazy about rock.

“We spent a lot of time listening to what were then the great bands, like Styx and Meat Loaf,’’ said John Mazzone, a roommate. “He was a very, very good air guitar player and he knew all the words to ‘Bat out of Hell.’ He probably still does.’’ (He does: “It’s the greatest scream-your-guts-out song of all time, bar none.’’)

John Newlon, a youth matched with Baker through the Big Brother program, remembers his mentor dressing up in “full Kiss regalia, the boots, the face paint’’ and going to a concert.

Andy Buchsbaum, one of his freshman teammates, said Baker was a natural team leader with “a big personality’’ but not an obvious politician-to-be.

“Of my friends, I would not have picked out Charlie to be the guy who’s running for governor of Massachusetts,’’ says Buchsbaum, who lives in Michigan. “He didn’t have that overly ambitious, fire-in-the-belly quality you sometimes see in your college classmates. Charlie was just too regular a guy for that.’’

Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the home Charles D. Baker's family owned in Rockport. They purchased the home after selling their home in Needham and did not use it as a second home.