John Victor Baker, 1924-2016
If ever anyone was the antithesis of the popular image of an athlete it was John Baker. He was never a champion by any stretch of the imagination but hidden within his ascetic and scrawny frame was a steely determination to do the best that he possibly could. This was borne out by the terrible trials that he endured during the war.
He left home at the age of fifteen and started working for the NAAFI but with the war under way it soon became time to ‘sign up’ and he plumped for the Royal Navy. His first ship was H.M.S. Braham, a newly commissioned Hunt Class destroyer. A close brush with death came when a sudden manoeuvre resulted in him losing his footing and being hurled across the deck. Only a pile of netting saved him from being thrown into the sea and the ship’s propellers.
Malta was blockaded by the Axis forces during 1940 to 1942 and the only way that military equipment, food and fuel for the populace and rag-tag of Royal Air Force planes defending the island could get through was by convoy, escorted by the Royal Navy. No more than a late teenager, John spent days and nights at a time in a seemingly never ending struggle to carry shells for the gunners as they attempted to fight off the dive bombers overhead. All the time there was the worry of a bomb finding its target or the ship being mined or torpedoed or attacked by E-boats. A Stuka dive-bomber actually crashed onto his vessel’s deck. For 90 hours this ordeal continued, with only three hours of sleep and no food at all during all that time.
More convoy duties followed in the Arctic and then there was Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – where bombs rained upon his ship and the dead and injured had to be dealt with while the boat was half under water.
Having done a little running in his school days, John joined Belgrave Harriers in April 1951 and became one of the regulars at the club house, setting out with the slower pack on a Tuesday and Thursday night and taking long runs around Richmond Park on a Saturday. All club endurance races benefitted from his presence, his preference being for contests over the longer distances.
He was employed by Shell Petroleum and when he was in his late fifties a sponsored run for charity was being organised. A quiet man, John had never really spoken of his running at work. He put his name down as a runner. His work colleagues took one look at him and sponsored him handsomely – surely this frail looking gent wouldn’t do too many miles. The event was to take place in Richmond Park – about 7½ miles in circumference. After three circuits the organisers pulled him out, stopping him from going on. Who knows how many laps he might have done.
In the ‘70s John became Treasurer of the Club and in 1977 he was made President, a post he took on while continuing with his fiscal duties. Upon retirement and having all his life remained a single man, he moved to Devon, to run a sweet shop.
One of the real characters of the Club, and always pleasant company during a Saturday afternoon run around Richmond Park, John spent his latter years in a nursing home and died on 8 September 2016 in his 92nd year.
Top. John Baker was Club President and Hon. Treasurer during the years 1977-1978.
Left. Always a regular at our cross country races, here John (169) hands over to a team mate at the end of his stint in the Surrey A.C. Cross Country Relay in Richmond Park on October 16th, 1976.