Editor’s Note: I am the host, producer and photographer for the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. I also write a monthly guest column related to the podcast for two local newspapers in Chaffee County, Colo.: the Chaffee County Times (Buena Vista) and The Mountain Mail (Salida). This is my column based on my conversation with Keith Baker, retired U.S. Naval Commander, public servant and community leader.

Keith Baker was a recent guest on the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. You likely recognize his name. He’s a current Chaffee County Commissioner and a former member of the Board of Trustees for Buena Vista. He’s also a former small-business owner locally and a retired U.S. Navy Commander. 

Beyond that, how much would you say you know about Keith Baker?

With Baker being an elected official in the area for more than 15 years, I suspect many of us think we know the man without really having gotten to know the man, who he is, where he comes from, what he’s about. 

Being the curious question-asker that I am, I invited Baker to join me on Looking Upstream so I (and you) could learn more about him. That’s why Looking Upstream exists, to help us connect through conversations and get to know our community better.

Baker and I talked about his country roots in Georgia, his family’s blue-collar work ethic and strong current of optimism. We talked about his dream of being a naval aviator, though he ultimately would become a career surface warfare officer, instead. 

We talked about his working closely as a Naval officer with General Colin Powell and other top leaders at the Pentagon. And we talked about leadership and public service more broadly. Among other things.

Here’s Baker, on his rural upbringing in Georgia:

“Most of my aunts and uncles, my parents, were hourly workers. My dad worked in a cotton mill. Most of my family worked in the same cotton mill. My mom became an LPN. I had a sister who was born with some severe challenges, and she passed away when she was 14, I was 10. …

“It was a great place to grow up, and a great way to grow up out in the country, and having the woods and the streams. I grew up right next to a lake, a freshwater lake, and did a lot of fishing, a lot of hunting, bird hunting, small game hunting. It was a lot of fun.”

On his 16th birthday, Baker joined his family at the cotton mill.

“I started out at $2 an hour. And then after about a month, it went to $2.22. … It was good to have some responsibility. And the mill, it was a convenient, steady job. 

“What I’d really wanted to do was to take flying lessons with my money. But also, like any kid, I wanted a motorcycle, and I wanted a car. It was just having my own disposable income, and then record albums and everything that a teenager did in the ’70s.”

I asked Baker what it was like to work with a consummate leader like General Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. 

“The thing I share with most people that I think says the most about (General Powell), is that you could be in a room alone with your back to the door, so you wouldn’t hear the door open, and he could step into the room and you’d know he was there. You’d just feel him, and then you’d turn and there he was. That’s the kind of power he had.

“But it was more than just his physical presence. He had a tremendous moral stature that few people I’ve ever been around have. And it wasn’t just because he was the chairman. He was the chairman because of that.

“It wasn’t just his rank. It wasn’t just those four stars on each shoulder and all his ribbons and badges and everything else. He just had a tremendous, tremendous moral stature.”

Listen to my full conversation with Keith Baker to learn more about his story, his insights on leadership and public service at wearechaffee.org, or on any podcast player … (or using the audio player above).

Adam Williams hosts the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast every other Tuesday. All episodes of the Looking Upstream podcast, and other We Are Chaffee storytelling projects, are available at wearechaffee.org. Follow @wearechaffeepod on Instagram.