Baker (Stafford) has consistently kept life guessing while tackling one challenge after another.
“You never thought that you couldn’t do something, did you?” asked Baker’s younger daughter, Darlene Robertson.
“No, not if I tried,” replied Baker, whose life story brings to mind the lyrics of the song “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” by Helen Reddy.
“And when she tried, she usually succeeded,” exclaimed Baker’s older daughter, Teresa Bole.
Baker’s daughters have consistently seen her rise above and beyond the call of duty.
“Her life has been tremendous,” Robertson said. “She has had an enormous life. For a little girl from Archville, Tennessee, she paved a path, she blazed her trail.”
“I was born on May 4, 1936, to Bill and Blanche Rymer,” Baker said.
Despite being the second of five children, Baker always found a way to stand out.
“She is always camera ready,” said Teresa.
This is readily apparent from the family photos that often caught Baker in various modeling poses. It was this behavior that caught the eye of Charlotte Clark, Cleveland’s most pronounced hairstylist in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“She would do my hair and people would come in to see the latest hairstyles and clothes that I fashioned,” Baker said.
“Mother liked to have her hair in an up-do every day,” Bole said. “If it did not look done up then she would go in and Charlotte would fix it up for her.”
For more than 10 years Baker modeled the latest fashions for Charlotte Clark. Her pictures lined the walls of the downtown Cleveland store.
“There were many times when we would leave the shower setting on,” Darlene said. “When mother would go to run a bath the water would hit her hair, so she would go in to have it fixed. Needless to say, she was not pleased.”
“And Charlotte always took me in,” added Baker.
Baker was spotted while modeling for Clark by a representative for Sunburst and Rainbow productions. The representative became Baker’s link to the beauty pageant circuit. Baker was eventually asked to become a pageant judge.
“This was during the beginning of the beauty pageants for children and younger teenagers,” Robertson said. “This was back when the girls had natural beauty.”
Parents of children who lost always asked Baker what could be improved upon.
“I always told them that their kid did not win because she looked too grown up,” Baker said. “I would tell the parents to use less makeup. That is what I told JonBenet Ramsey’s mother.” Ramsey was the young girl and pageant-circuit contestant who was murdered in Boulder, Colo., in 1996.
Baker began judging while in Cleveland and continued when she moved to Atlanta in 1967. For years she would travel to various pageants held in the Southeast and Atlanta. Baker was eventually sought out to judge national level pageants.
“Teresa has the girls and they were able to get involved in the beauty pageants,” explained Robertson.
“Darlene had the boys. Together we have it all: beauty queens, cheerleaders, and handsome men, too,” Bole said.
Baker’s first job upon arriving in Atlanta was as a waitress at the skyline landmark Polaris Restaurant and Lounge. While working there she met a contact who introduced her to the family-owned steakhouse, Pilgreen’s.
“For more than 20 years Mom worked at the steakhouse. The owners of Pilgreen’s really accepted her as part of the family,” Robertson said.
With her wit, charm and brains, Baker quickly became an integral part of the Pilgreen’s staff.
“I was a hostess and I served drinks,” Baker said. “Sometimes my regulars would even sit and wait until I was available; most of the time Evel Knievel would wait for one of my tables.”
Despite working as a hostess and judging beauty pageants, Baker found a way to land a cameo appearance in the 1977 blockbuster hit “Smokey and the Bandit.”
“The Teamsters Union asked me if I wanted to be Burt Reynolds’ personal chauffeur during the filming and I said ‘Yes!,’” Baker recalls.
Baker was behind a wheel and driving around the ‘70s heartthrob and Hollywood bad boy before she knew it.
“Burt was always a gentleman, a perfect gentleman. He refused to let me open my door. ‘No Miss Billie Joe, I will open your door,’ he would tell me,” recalled Baker.
Robertson agrees the experience was fun.
“I think my favorite story is when you accidentally rolled his arm up in the window,” Bole said. “Although, as a teenager, it was also really cool that we had the six black Trans Ams from the movie in our front yard.”
Baker enjoyed the experience.
“They really paid me well as a driver,” Baker said. “Sometimes Sally Fields and Burt Reynolds would take me out to eat with them.”
In the late ‘70s in the midst of a real estate boom, Baker decided to leave Pilgreen’s and get involved in commercial real estate.
“What you need to understand is that commercial real estate was not worked by many women in the late ‘70s,” Robertson said. “Mom paved a trail for a lot of women, commercial real estate being one of them.”
Baker is more modest with her memories.
“The men were very respectful and helpful when I started. They watched out for me and made sure I did not make a fool of myself,” Baker said.
Bole has a different stance.
“Mom is a classy lady and she earned their respect,” Bole said. “She was stepping into a man’s world and she worked hard to succeed.”
Baker worked in commercial real estate for almost 15 years. During that time she sold to McDonald’s, gas stations like Amoco, and rented out office space.
“My girls were already involved in selling homes and it looked interesting to me. Except for one thing, I wanted to sell to the big companies. I wanted to get involved in commercial estate,” Baker said.
In 1984 she was inducted as a Million Dollar Life Club member and in 1995 Baker hung up her gloves.
Today she is settled back in Cleveland, where her two daughters live. Her legacy has continued by way of six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“There is lots of laughter, lots of love,” Robertson said. “We are as dysfunctional as the rest, but we love each other and we make it through.”
That is not to say that they always felt like laughing.
“Mother’s Day was a big deal,” revealed Bole. “We had to dress to the nines and attend two different church services in Polk County.”
Robertson agreed with her sister.
“Its true,” Robertson said. “We had more arguments on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year.”
“One time, one of you girls wanted to wear hose and I told you, ‘No, don’t wear hose, they will not stay up’. Darlene wore them and they fell off,” Baker said.
“So then she made me wear them and they wrinkled around my ankles,” Robertson said.
Now that her children are grown, Baker can now focus on the three ‘loves’ of her life: the slots, bingo and estate sales.
“I hate estate sales,” Bole said. “She manages to convince me by saying, ‘Darlene takes me over there and Darlene takes me over here.’ So naturally I give in and take her wherever she wants to go.”
Baker has visited Las Vegas five or six times with both family and friends.
“While there I saw Elvis in concert,” Baker said. “I was in the front row at that round table and he was up on stage. He was so cute.”
In the end, Baker has lived a life that is very hard to sum up. She decided early on to seize opportunities and work hard to succeed.
When asked how to live a full life, Baker said, “Work hard and be kind and good to people. Help them when you can and depend on the Lord. He is the only one that can help us.”