By Nancy Tannler
Anyone who has read a copy of The Southeast Examiner in the past eighteen years will probably recognize the name of Jean Baker.
A tireless participant in the microcosm of local government, she has chaired neighborhood and business associations, was the President of the APBNA (now Venture Portland) and was on board early on for the Division Vision project (culminating this month in what the city calls the Division Green Street/Main Street Program).
Many are unaware of how much volunteer effort goes into maintaining these healthy inner southeast neighborhoods. Street fairs, block parties, Good Neighbor Agreements, conflict resolutions, stoplights, cross-walks, land use decisions, street trees, bioswales, bike lanes, etc., don’t just happen.
Along with paid city employees, there is a faithful group of volunteers watching out for the best interests of the neighborhood. Ms. Baker is one of them.
The child of a serviceman, Baker’s early years were itinerant and she attended sixteen schools until the family moved to McChord Air Force base out of Tacoma. It was a jumping off point for her. She was college age and went to school in Seattle receiving a degree in mathematics.
She recalled a special memory of all the different types of small businesses the family shopped at, especially in Tacoma: “I remember buying vegetables from the back of a truck and the milk and the meat trucks stopping at our house,” Baker said.
Our present day farmer’s markets have resurrected this special way to get what we need while supporting small businesses.
Baker watched her mother go from a behind-the-scenes housewife to taking charge of family finance, mortgages, house sales, moving from state to state taking on all the jobs generally relegated to the man of the house plus doing her own work.
Her father was a pilot and was sent on missions during the Korean War that lasted months at a time.“Mom did everything and really rose to the occasion,” she said.
Baker’s first job out of college was as an actuarial student for Milliman and Robertson, where her enthusiasm shifted from analytic and statistical math to computers, programming, and writing.
She updated statistical programs from Fortran to Fortran II and documented a security system by reading the computer code, becoming one of the first batch of computer programmers.
“I practically lived in the room where the computer was kept. They took up a lot of space,” she said.
Along with great hands-on technology experience, another good part of the job was that she met her husband Jim. He was from SE Portland and eventually they settled here to raise their three children.
Except for a few years while her children were young, Baker worked as a freelance technical writer. She wrote a history of OMSI’s first 50 years – in her words, very factual and rather dull reading. She researched and wrote numerous grant requests, newsletters, and newspaper articles. “I had the best of all worlds in my work because I love to learn new things and I love to write.”
Volunteering was always a natural part of Baker’s makeup too. She began in high school and continues to this day sharing her time and energy for her causes. On the national front, she has collected donations for Easter seals and the American Cancer Society.
Appointed to the Parks department budget committee for three years, she volunteered for the Hawthorne, Division, and Foster street fairs for years; served on the board of Division/Clinton Business Association, the APNBA, OHSU Family Medicine at Richmond’s, the Richmond Neighborhood Association, the PTA for Piedmont Grade in California, Tiller/Trail Grade, and Metropolitan Learning Center.
The Southeast Examiner chose to spotlight Jean Baker because of her involvement on the citizen’s committee for the Division Green Street/Main Street Plan.
“We began the project back in 2002 when we called ourselves the Division Vision Coalition,” she said.
At that time, Division St. was mainly a contractors street with a little retail. The original plan was to improve the image of the street by improving small businesses, making the street more friendly to pedestrian, bicyclists and drivers while encouraging a culturally rich community.
“In the early stages, we had no idea about the plans of private investors or all the apartment buildings,” Baker said. “It’s a part of the progress.”
The City of Portland established Division St. as one of their redevelopment priorities. A collaborative effort in 2004 between the City, a 17-member Community Working Group and a 16-member Techical advisory Group commenced planning with work scheduled to begin in 2007.
The name was then changed to the Division Green Street/Main Street Plan and was funded in part by a grant from ODOT and $2.5 million in federal transportation funds.
The City has finished most of their work on SE Division St. and will be celebrating on October 24 with Open Fest.
When The SE Examiner asked Ms. Baker what’s next now that this big project is over she said, “I can’t imagine my life without social involvement, conversation or writing. I’ll find a cause.”