City's queen of fun dies at 76 Virginia Baker ran recreational activities

July 30, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's oldest kid has died at the age of 76.

Virginia S. Baker -- who began her career in fun and games as an East Baltimore playground monitor in 1940 and hopscotched her way up to City Hall in the silly-hat regime of William Donald Schaefer -- died yesterday at St. Joseph Medical Center of complications from pneumonia.

"I've made a lot of kids happy," she said in a 1995 interview. "That's what I get paid for."

Never married, Miss Baker counted generations of Baltimore youngsters as her own special brood.

Her secret?

The girl who grew up as "Queenie" in her father's confectionary at Belnord Avenue and Monument Street -- where she honed her childlike playfulness and steely resolve -- never stopped thinking like a kid.

In a century that whittled an American child's idea of a good time down to pushing buttons on plastic gadgets, Miss Baker championed timeless fun: hog-calling contests, frog-jumping races, turtle derbies, sack races, beanbag tosses, peanut shucking and doll shows.

"And don't forget her annual Elvis salute," said Sue McCardell, Miss Baker's longtime assistant in the Department of Recreation and Parks. "We'll keep going with all the things Virginia started."

Bob Wall, a recreation programmer in Patterson Park -- where the rec center is named in Miss Baker's honor -- first met his mentor as an 11-year-old Little Leaguer in 1968.

"It was a Saturday and our game was rained out and we were walking past the rec center in our uniforms. I'd never been inside it before," Mr. Wall remembered. "This boisterous lady yelled out to us: 'You boys want to catch frogs for me today?'"

Of course they did. And that was Mr. Wall's initiation into a world he unexpectedly found himself eulogizing yesterday when the city's 58th annual doll show -- launched by Miss Baker at the start of her career -- coincided with her death.

"We had a moment of silence," said Mr. Wall. "And then we said the show's got to go on."

The Virginia Baker show started in 1921. Her father was a Czech immigrant who changed the family name from Pecinka to Baker. Her mother, Hattie, was a Baltimorean of Czechoslovakian descent.

"Daddy mixed the syrup for the sodas and milkshakes and Mama cooked the chocolate for the sundaes," she said of the family store, now a carryout restaurant and liquor store protected by iron bars and bulletproof plastic. "Boy, did this neighborhood smell good!"

Miss Baker had a voice so quintessentially Baltimore that Washington disc jockeys regularly put her on the radio just to let the nation's power brokers believe ev- erything they'd ever heard about this city.

On the sidewalks of her beloved hometown, young Virginia learned the tricks she would turn into a career.

"We played every game you can imagine out here," she said during a 1995 visit to the old store that was her home from infancy until her father died in 1954.

Miss Baker rode scooters, shot marbles, made kites out of newspapers and sticks, played tag, spun tops, and made yo-yos sing and puppets dance. She collected matchbook covers and wagered hundreds of them at a time in card games of pitch, poker and pinochle down at Sprock's Garage on Lakewood Avenue.

And when she got black eyes from roughhousing -- Queenie was a bruiser, she freely admitted -- the local butcher put beef on them to keep down the swelling.

As a youngster, Miss Baker became a volunteer at the old Patterson Park recreation center. After graduating from Eastern High School in 1940, she made play her work, soon becoming director of recreation for the park.

From that time, she served nine Baltimore mayors, from Howard W. Jackson to Kurt L. Schmoke. She became best known during the 15-year tenure of Mr. Schaefer, who installed her at City Hall as perhaps the only civil servant in America in charge of an office called Adventures in Fun.

Miss Baker turned City Hall Plaza into a staging area for endless contests -- marbles, pogo sticks, chess, checkers, Hula-Hoops, yo-yos, roller skates, bicycles, kites and tops.

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 toys, an event copied across the nation because of Miss Baker's knack for publicity.

"She was a great old girl," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday. "She initiated all sorts of hokey things and everybody loved them. I hog-called one year. I didn't have my own frog for the jumping contest, but she gave me one. He didn't win. But Virginia always had young people around her. She made them work hard and feel good."

For six decades, her motto never changed: "A kid is still a kid."

Miss Baker lived at the Marylander Apartments from 1954 until a stroke in 1992. She did not officially retire until 1995. She resided in recent years at a Towson nursing home and is survived by several nieces and nephews.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Church of the Nativity, Cedarcroft and York roads.

Donations may be made to the Virginia S. Baker Recreation Memorial Fund, c/o Friends of Patterson Park, 27 S. Patterson Park Ave., Baltimore 21231.

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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