As a girl of 15, Betty Baker would board a train in her hometown of Rochester, Minn., and head alone to boarding school in Washington, D.C., stopping in Chicago along the way. Years later, she would tell her family stories of how she wandered around downtown Chicago for hours awaiting her train connection, inquisitive and unafraid.
“Mom was incredibly smart,” said her youngest son, Alex, “and she was also courageous in her own way.”
That intrepid spirit she brought to her teenage intellectual development and adventures was something she passed along to her sons, one of whom grew up to be governor of Massachusetts, and to the friends her boys brought home to the family’s house in Needham.
“We have all many friends who came to know Mom quite well and really appreciated what they learned from her — her wisdom, her wit, and her perspective,” said her middle son, Jonathan. “Especially notable, I think, was how strong a role model she was for many young women who came to benefit from spending time with Mom and from getting advice and guidance from her on how to live a full and meaningful life. She was adored by many, many young women.”
Mrs. Baker, whose dignity and grace as she slipped deeper into dementia provided examples of bravery that her oldest son, Governor Charlie Baker, cited in speeches and interviews, died Saturday in the North Hill retirement community in Needham. She was 83.
“You raised three boys, along with tons of other kids from around the neighborhood (and some outside of it too), and along with Dad, taught everyone about life, love, service, and sacrifice,” the governor said Saturday, paying tribute to his mother in a Facebook post.
For years she knew she would eventually join the millions in the United States who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, and by virtue of her son’s 2014 election, she provided a public face for the illness in Massachusetts.
Through previous generations, dementia was a constant presence in Mrs. Baker’s family. “Her mother and her grandmother — as far as I can tell, every woman in my mother’s family back to Eve experienced dementia,” Alex said. “My mom knew this was coming all her life and she faced this head on. There was no denial. There were times, certainly, when she was frustrated and angry, but who wouldn’t be?”
So, too, did her family know that Saturday would someday arrive, but such knowledge doesn’t soften the ache of loss. Borrowing a line from an old TV show, her husband, Charles D. Baker, told Alex: “I always knew this day would come, that’s why I’m so surprised.”
And who wouldn’t be, her sons added. Mrs. Baker, they said, brought immeasurable energy to being a mother, a wife, and a volunteer who served on boards with a vibrancy that seemed impossible to extinguish, even though they knew dementia was inevitable.
Over the years, her family said, Mrs. Baker served on the local fair housing committee and was a coordinator in Needham for Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity programs, opening her home to Metco students whenever the need arose.
She helped direct the Career and Volunteer Advisory Service in Boston in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and served for some 20 years on the board of Family Services of Greater Boston, stepping down in 2000.
Not content to just attend board meetings, she volunteered for any task, even stuffing envelopes, said Alex, who lives in Boston. At Family Services of Greater Boston, she did her own research to ensure the agency fulfilled its mission.
“She would call clients and would pull anecdotes and stories from them and share those,” said Randal Rucker, who retired last year as the agency’s CEO. “She offered incredibly sharp insights. Betty gave just heart and soul and time to that agency for all the time she was on the board.”
Elizabeth Ghormley was born Dec. 24, 1932, in Rochester, Minn., the younger of two siblings. Her father, Dr. Ralph K. Ghormley, was an orthopedic surgeon and was chief of orthopedics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her mother, the former Jean M. McDougall, trained as a nurse and met Dr. Ghormley when they were both at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Mrs. Baker’s brother, Ralph M. Ghormley, was a Navy rear admiral and died in 2012.
Because of her father’s work, Mrs. Baker’s upbringing reached beyond the typical day-to-day of the Midwest. “She grew up in an ordinary, small Minnesota town,” Alex said, “and also Helen Keller came to her house for tea once.”
Mrs. Baker attended Mount Vernon Seminary, then a private school in Washington, D.C., as a boarding student and was the valedictorian of her class. “From that experience in Washington, she wasn’t going to go back to small-town life in Rochester,” Alex said.
She went to Wellesley College, where she majored in Spanish literature and graduated in 1954, anticipating that she would use her second language through work in the import-export part of the business world.
Through friends she met Charles D. Baker, whom she married on June 4, 1955. They lived in New York state and New Jersey before moving to Needham. He also formerly served as US deputy undersecretary of transportation and as assistant secretary of transportation in the Nixon administration, and as undersecretary of health and human services in the Reagan administration.
Running the household, Mrs. Baker “first and foremost was always supporting and encouraging of her sons,” said Jonathan, who lives in Worcester. “What she wanted was for us to feel good about our choices and our paths and ultimately about ourselves.”
An avid reader, she co-owned a Rockport bookstore for a few years. Whether working or volunteering as director of religious education at the Federated Church of Ashland, helping out at the Congregational churches in Needham and Rockport, or keeping track of the many youths who accompanied her sons, Mrs. Baker paid close attention to details others might overlook.
“Our cabinets were stocked not just with Pop-Tarts that we enjoyed, but with Pop-Tarts that friends coming over to visit enjoyed,” Jonathan said. “Mom always knew what their favorite Pop-Tarts were.”
A service will be announced for Mrs. Baker, who in addition to her husband and three sons, leaves five grandchildren.
Less than two weeks before his mother died, the governor said during a commencement address at Nichols College that by example his parents had demonstrated how to cope with adversity “even when the cards are cruel and unrelenting.”
As the illness progressed and her memory faded, “she and my father held hands and walked down a tough road,” Alex said, but even before the onset of dementia “many people had said that my parents really represent what a marriage can mean — their real commitment to each other, their support of each other.”
That was all the more clear these last years when his name became “her mantra,” Alex said. At times she repeated the word, over and over. “She just knew that ‘Charlie’ meant something,” he added. “She knew ‘Charlie’ meant safety, security.”
Charlie visited Betty every day, walking from his North Hill apartment to where she lived nearby in the nursing care part of the community.
On Friday, Alex spoke with his father and “one of the things he said was: ‘You need to remember that I don’t go over there every day to feel sad or sorry for myself. I go over there every day to remind myself how blessed I’ve been.’ If you had told my father 50 years ago how this was going to play out, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. I don’t think my parents know how remarkable they are.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.