by Bette Dewing
The online list of Russell Baker quotes offers an elongated version of the “Progress Strikes Again” lament we loved in his New York Times column. All too applicable nowadays, they must be remembered and used. But consider how truly progressive if the “complications from a fall” cause of 93-year-old Baker’s death prompted infinitely more concern for the prevention and treatment of this all too common, painful, debilitating and costly condition. Stressing the cost to national health care would likely help the most.
And how we wish Russell Baker were around to say all that, and write a book called “Growing Old.” Every obituary naturally lauds his prize-winning book “Growing Up,” about his Depression-era childhood, and, of course, the 5,000 or so Observer columns, written with such gentle wry humor and grace. He was the only humorist writer to make the cover of Time.
Incidentally, he and his wife Mimi moved back to his childhood town, Leesberg, Virginia, when New York had become “too much” for him. But ironically, progress had struck that city too, he told interviewer Adrienne La France in 2013. “So now there’s no place within walking distance to buy a bottle of milk,” he said. How we needed his sounding off publicly about this all too commonplace urban tsunami. Oh, and of course, not forgetting his sounding off on White House disasters.
About that 2013 interview, when asked about today’s humor programs Baker said they were no longer funny, since the four-letter word takeover, “A cheap laugh” he said.
And so much more must be remembered about one of the last greatest generation writers, one who truly was a great thinker. Remember, for example, that Russell Baker was a great family man. “No better father,” said his son Alan. And no doubt no better grandfather, and by all accounts a devoted husband.
Baker had to be devastated when his wife Mimi departed this life in 2015 at age 88. Whether a short or long illness is not officially recorded, and her husband would likely agree that columns and books need to be written about the late stages of life — the hard realities, some undergirded and exacerbated by age discrimination and segregtion.
And how I hope this beloved family man and revered writer, had the help and support, he needed in his late years, especially after his wife died. Men, unfortunately, don’t share their personal troubles nearly enough. Ah, that too must change.
A related and important digression — just maybe Clyde Haberman will be the one to say that and much more if the Times reinstates his weekly column after his moving tribute to Russell Baker’s life and work in the Sunday paper. Some of you will remember Haberman’s weekly column was about city conditions, “the progress strikes again” warnings. These thankfully included traffic dangers, about which my applauding letter to the editor was found fit to print. How we need his column restored, to cover and oppose E-bike licensing, a possible transit fare hike and unprecedented street congestion, which brings more traffic, and more traffic tragedies.
Russell Baker would surely agree that restoring the Haberman column would be truly progressive. It can be done if enough of us try. At least, try. That’s how we can honor you best, dear Russell Baker, your character and your life, as well as your inimitable and heartfelt prize-winning “Progress strikes again” crusades, which surely must be continued.