When Bill Baker showed up Saturday morning at the Roanoke County Public Library in Vinton, he didn’t look like a retired Navy Reserve captain who once worked as an aide for the secretary of defense. Nor did he appear to be someone who’s twice suffered traumatic brain injuries.
The 81-year-old Roanoke County man carried a ukulele. A black-and-white-checkerboard fedora rested on his head. That was hard to miss. But just in case you did, a string of blinking lights lit up the brim.
The only thing brighter was the broad smile on Baker’s face.
A few minutes later, he strummed the first notes of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” to a group of 16 in a second-floor meeting room. Baker was the warm-up act for a class conducted by Connie Scaggs, a former Carilion Clinic executive.
The class is Laughter Yoga, which Baker helped bring to the Roanoke Valley a little more than a year ago. The class started at Roanoke County’s South County Library. Now there are regular no-charge classes in three libraries and Baker has plans to expand to the Glenvar branch soon.
“We want you to pretend you’re in a sandbox as a kid,” he told the students, most of whom passed 50 a good while back. “Bring out your inner child.”
For the next 60 minutes, peals, howls, squeaks and roaring belly laughs filled the room. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. It felt great. And I doubt I was the only one who left feeling that way.
The story about Baker’s foray into Laughter Yoga is improbable, inspiring and serendipitous. He grew up here in the Roanoke Valley and graduated from Jefferson High School in 1955. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s he worked as dean of students at the University of Richmond, he said. He also served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Baker later spent four years of active duty working in the Pentagon for Caspar Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense. After retiring from the Navy, Baker returned to Roanoke to complete work for a doctorate in education at Virginia Tech (May 1994) and to care for his elderly parents, who were here.
Between them, Baker and his second wife, Judy, had six children and were planning a move to Florida to continue his career in academia. First, they went on a beach vacation to North Carolina that summer. There, a personal watercraft piloted by a 16-year-old ran over Baker at 40 mph and changed his life forever.
Baker said the crash broke all his ribs, fractured his jaw in three places and left him with a traumatic brain injury. If an ambulance hadn’t happened to be passing the scene at the time, Baker might not have made it.
“I died in the ER,” in Morehead City, North Carolina, Baker said. “They had to bring me back with [electro-shock] paddles.”