Woman who brought kids fun retires

June 05, 1995|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

She brought frog hops and turtle derbies to City Hall. She dispatched Fun Wagons to Baltimore's most forgotten neighborhoods. And she made sure television cameras spread her message: Smile, you're in Bawlamer.

For 53 years, Virginia S. Baker was heart and soul of the city's recreation programs. Yesterday about 75 longtime friends, co-workers and former "dead-end kids" from Highlandtown and Canton marked her formal retirement by crowning her Baltimore's First Lady of Fun.

"She pushed all us 'dead-end kids' to go to college," said Lisa Mirarchi, who worked with Miss Baker in the city's Office of Adventures in Fun for nine years. "If anyone said they couldn't afford to go, she got on the phone with a state senator to get them a scholarship."

L Miss Baker, 73 and in a wheelchair since a stroke nearly two

years ago, soaked up their accolades in a ceremony at the Virginia S. Baker-Patterson Park Recreation Center, named for her in 1984.

There were speeches, a gymnastics exhibition, barbecued chicken and corn on the cob. The Bureau of Recreation's Charm City Orchestra serenaded Miss Baker with "Anywhere You Go, Sunshine Follows You."

And for old times' sake, in honor of the hog-calling contest she started, the First Lady of Fun belted out three mighty cries of "Sooo-eeey! Here, piggy, piggy, pig!"

Afterward Miss Baker called the tribute "wonderful. I had fun. Everybody did," she said.

Virginia Baker grew up in an East Baltimore rowhouse neighborhood. Her father was a Czech immigrant who changed the family name from Pecinka to Baker. The family had a confectionery at the intersection of Monument Street and Belnord Avenue.

The mix of childlike playfulness and steely resolve that made Miss Baker among the city's most admired civil servants was present during her East Baltimore childhood, old friends said. Along North Belnord Avenue she was known as "queen of the hill."

ZTC "Virginia was not always the caring and lovable gal she is now," said Norman Drimal, who grew up down the street. "What Virginia said went. Everybody listened to Virginia, including the boys. If you didn't, she'd beat the hell out of you."

Mildred Hamilton, another member of the Belnord crowd, said Miss Baker taught the kids how to let the air out of car tires and to play cards for matchboxes.

As a youngster, Miss Baker became a volunteer at the old Patterson Park recreation center. After graduating from Eastern High School, she made play her work, soon becoming director of recreation for the park.

Miss Baker served under nine Baltimore mayors, from Howard W. Jackson to Kurt L. Schmoke. Through the decades, her motto remained: "A kid is still a kid."

Salute to Elvis

She invented the Fun Wagon, a small trailer with a basketball hoop on back and stuffed with toys. Five of them toured the city. She started the Kid Swap Shop, where children traded unwanted toys, and the event was copied across the nation. She initiated the annual Salute to Elvis in the Fells Point square, even though she wasn't an Elvis fan.

And she held contest upon contest. If kids liked it, chances are Baltimore had a contest -- marbles, Frisbees, pogo sticks, chess, checkers, Hula-Hoops, yo-yos, roller skates, bicycles, kites and tops.

"She thought like a kid and was able to relate," said a nephew, Michael J. Baker, who was emcee. "She saw kids come to the park with turtles and said, 'Hey, if I was kid, I'd want to race them.' "

Brenda Prevas said Baltimore's annual chicken-clucking contest began when someone in the Adventures in Fun office imitated a chicken. Within minutes, Miss Baker was on the phone organizing a contest, setting a date and lining up fast-food sponsors.

"It's been a success every year since," Ms. Prevas said.

Miss Baker's Baltimore boosterism and knack for public relations made her a favorite of Mayor William Donald Schaefer as he told the citizenry that, despite ebbing population, shrinking industry and surging violence, "Baltimore Is Best."

Mr. Schaefer installed her in City Hall, and the news cameras followed. Miss Baker turned dingy War Memorial Plaza into a lively recreation area -- and a natural stage for the mayor.

During a summer heat wave, Miss Baker's staff -- decked out in chefs' hats -- tried to fry eggs on the sidewalk. That made at least two TV newscasts, Ms. Prevas recalled.

Even when Mayor Schmoke moved the Adventures in Fun office to Fells Point's Broadway Recreation Pier, Miss Baker left her mark. She got volunteers to rebuild a rooftop playground and raised funds to replace the 410 lights that spell out CITY PIER BROADWAY at harborside.

Yesterday Miss Baker rested after a fruitful life's work. Someone brought her pirogis (turnovers) from the nearby Polish Festival. Five-year-old Maura Mirarchi crowned her. She received hug after hug.

The First Lady of Fun said thanks and, at a time of tight budgets and less government fun for kids, summed up her political philosophy: "You can't get anything without publicity."

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