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Family of teacher taken in crash dealing with tragedy

Longtime WB educator was loved and respected by all of those whom she touched

December 28, 2009
By J.D. CREER, Salem News Managing Editor

It's become a ritual for the precious little 4-year-old before she is tucked in at night. She will tenderly leave something very personal next to her bed. It might be a little flower or a ring. It might be a note such as one she wrote which read: "I wish this thing would've never happened and I miss you. Love Madilynn."

And in the morning, she awakens and the little flower, ring or note is gone. She is happy knowing her angels had visited.

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Article Photos

This photo provided by her mother, Kay Miller, shows the late Jennifer Baker dancing with her husband, Brent, and looking down on her children, Jacob and Madilynn. It was taken during a family wedding reception just weeks before the West Branch educator lost her life in a roadway accident.

Fate is whimsical and capricious. It doesn't discriminate with its suddenness and oft-times viciousness. On the morning of Nov. 19 it chose Jennifer Baker and her family.

That Thursday there was a change in routine for the 33-year-old mother of two and longtime teacher in the West Branch School District. Her son and Madilynn's 7-year-old big brother, Jacob, wasn't feeling well. Jennifer wanted to care for him which meant missing a day in the classroom. Instead of merely making a call to let the substitute for her third graders know what the lessons were for that day, the conscientious Jennifer decided to drive to school and personally deliver the lesson plans. "Originally she was going to have me drop them off," recalled her husband, Brent. "But she said, 'No, I want to take them up to make sure the substitute knew what we had been doing in class.'" That was an example of the dedication she carried daily for her students and her craft. After stopping at school, she headed home with Jacob and Madilynn. Waiting down the road was fate. Tragedy was coming from the other direction. It was sudden and it was vicious. They were blindsided. The impact was violent.

Jennifer was killed and her son critically injured when 19-year-old Rikki S. Wheatly III of Mechanicstown traveled left of center on Rochester Road just south of Georgetown Road and struck her vehicle head-on at 8:38 a.m., according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Just like that, a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend to so many with an always-bright and wide smile - it was her signature said her mother - was gone. Left are the pieces for a devastated family to pick up and carry on with. The sorrow is undefineable.

Fact Box

You can help the Bakers....

- To send a card of support to Jacob who loves to get mail: Jacob Baker, c/o Children's Institute of Pittsburgh, 1405 Shady Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217-1350.

-To contribute to the Jennifer Baker Family Fund:

Funds can be sent to: Jennifer Baker Family Fund c/o Farmers National Bank, P.O. Box 359, Damascus, OH 44619 or made at any FNB branch. For information, call Jenny Zehentbauer, 330-831-3094; Don Raber, 330-501-2413; or Karen Novak, 330-537-4004. Money will be used to help the family with any kind of expenses.

-Also, the former classmates of Jennifer Baker have joined together to form the Jennifer Baker Educational Fund at Farmers National Bank that will provide money for the educational needs of the two young children she left behind.

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They were longtime sweethearts, Brent Baker and Jennifer Miller. She was a 1994 West Branch High School graduate. He graduated from West Branch two years later. They shared a common interest, actually make that a passion, for farming and animals. They had known each other through 4-H and showing cows at the fair.

"I had wanted to date her for a couple of years," Brent recalled with a chuckle. "I finally did wear her down."

A dream of a lifetime together began. They were married in June 2000. A family came with, first, Jacob, and then Madilynn. Their passion was realized when they became farmers.

"We had a mutual love for farming," Brent said. "We rented our first year and ended up buying. We milked for nine years. The last couple of years, farming has been terrible for milking cows. We did it as long as we financially could. We had bought the farm straight out; hook, line and sinker. It was very rare in this day and age for a young couple to spend money in this industry. My wife worked the whole time; she'd get up at 4 in the morning. She would milk and I would feed the cows. It was our thing together. Farming had always been in our families."

Later due to the economy wreaking havoc with milk prices, the couple turned to artificial insemination of cows. Baker's Breeding Service in Kensington was born.

The work involved can be grueling. Brent traverses county after nearby county going from farm-to-farm. Driving over 200 miles in a single day isn't uncommon. It isn't an easy way to make a living. He will work days on end, maybe taking just a handful off during an entire year. But it was what he and Jennifer had wanted.

"It was a dream we had together; doing this," he said. "We were living it. It ended way sooner than it should've."

He had been out on the road that November morning when tragedy came barreling down Rochester Road.

"It's unbelievable how a single phone call can forever change your life," he said.

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Jennifer was instantly killed. That signature smile was forever taken away. Madilynn was bruised and shaken but not seriously injured. But Jacob was. A vertebrae in his back was broken. His spinal cord was bruised. He had a serious internal injury. A fifth of his colon had to be removed.

"He was so brave," recalled Kay Miller, his grandmother and Jennifer's mother. "At the accident he told those arriving to the scene, 'my name is Jacob Baker. This is my sister Madilynn and my mom, Jennifer Baker, is driving the car."

Imagine a 7-year-old having that kind of presence of mind! Imagine the terror those two children experienced.

Jacob's memories of the accident - he and his sister remained conscious throughout-are remarkably vivid. One day at the hospital he told his dad of seeing a red truck coming way in his mommy's lane.

The driver of the other vehicle walked away from the hospital. "From what I can gather, charges are pending against him," Brent said about the accident. An investigation which included toxicology testing is ongoing. "I've heard all sorts of rumors," Brent disclosed. "I guess we wait and see. Jennifer wasn't at fault."

Brent got the tragic news in a call from his brother, Brian, who is chief of the Homeworth Fire Dept. He was among the first on the scene. Think of his horror upon seeing the accident victims were family members.

"I was numb, just numb," Brent said recalling the phone call from his brother. "I was out just doing my job, going from one farm to another. It was just like any other day until it happened."

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Slowly but surely, Jacob continues to mend at the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh. Christmas was taken over to him by the family. And during the most joyous of our seasons, prayers are being answered. About two weeks ago, Jacob had some movement in his feet. He now has some feeling in his toes, according to his dad who has somehow dealt with the overwhelming duty of being there for his son in Pittsburgh, and daughter back home - often taken care of by her grandparents -and his business. The family rotates visits to Jacob.

"It could take three to four months to see how Jacob's back injury pans out," Brent said. He was told shortly after the accident that Jacob would likely be paralyzed from his belly button down. "I don't understand why this happened. I don't understand why my son could be crippled."

The accident and its aftermath have been the hardest of reality checks. The mourning will continue for a very long time. Tears continue to be shed.

"I thought I had problems before all of this," Brent said. "We have always struggled; farmers just don't make much money nowadays. We had hit rock bottom financially but things were finally turning and heading uphill. We had a great family. That's what bothers me."

He admits it is oh so hard to accept, this suddenness and viciousness of fate. "Of course I ask why this all had to happen," he said. "I wonder how I could have this much bad karma. She was such a wonderful person.

"Her family is great and my family is phenomenal through all of this," Brent continued. "But I'm not going to lie to you; it scares me to death. I'm 31 years old and Jennifer was 33. We were suppose to grow old together and watch our kids get married. I would tell anyone that first and foremost, go home and hug your wife and hug your kids because you don't know what tomorrow will bring."

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Those in our area are acutely aware that the West Branch community hasn't been a stranger to tragedy. It has struck often. Grief seems to reside there. And true to a fortitude we have seen reflected in the past, district members responded accordingly to the Baker tragedy.

"The outpouring has been amazing," Brent said. "We've gotten a lot of cards from people we don't even know. You always hear about the goodness of people during bad times. It's very true."

Even the students at Beloit Elementary where Jennifer not only taught but where Jacob is a first grader, came through. There's been the kind of cards that only youngsters can create. They also raised over $700 by bringing in quarters and stamping a Christmas tree.

"The teachers have been especially good," Brent emphasized. "They were like another family to Jennifer. She never would've thought of teaching somewhere else. She wanted to be at West Branch."

Jennifer was a Kent State graduate. She began her West Branch teaching career at Maple Ridge Elementary School in 1997 as a fifth-grade teacher. When Maple Ridge was closed in 2004, she moved with the teaching staff to Beloit, where she taught fifth grade and, eventually, third grade.

She served as a member of the district-wide School Improvement Team, along with the Local Professional Development Committee.

She will be sorely missed, according to West Branch Schools Superintendent Scott Weingart.

"She was just an extraordinary teacher, especially for our elementary kids," he said. "The third graders were a very good fit for her. She had a real gift for connecting with kids who were finding school difficult for a variety of reasons; maybe something going on at home or just kids for whom school was hard for. There's is a package that goes together in being an elementary school teacher. You have to know what you are doing but you also need that compassion. Jennifer knew that there was more to teaching than just book learning. She had that gift, that knack.

"I had known Jennifer for a long time. She was a West Branch girl who was one of those people who early on knew that she wanted to teach. It was interesting to watch her come up and through the district. She had done her tutoring and subbing here. The principals who would observe her thought so highly of her. When there was an opening, she was definitely someone I wanted to bring in here. She was very dedicated to profession. She had two small children and her and her husband were very busy with the farm. She served on a number of key committees. She involved with the school improvement team. She was always on the lookout for new ideas and programs."

Weingart stressed the response of the community as indicative of the kinds of kind-hearted people within the West Branch family.

"It's been one of those things," he said. "The kids and the staff and the families have all leaned on each other to deal with this very difficult situation. The teacher who came into her room was someone who worked as a tutor for us so the kids and the staff and the parents already knew her. That part was helpful.

"The staff has done a very good job, especially (Beloit Elementary Principal) Roger Kitzmiller. He has been really helpful in maintaining a link between the staff and the students and also with the family."

He praised the steadiness and resolve of Brent. "He has been excellent," Weingart said. "He's been to the school a number of times. He has met with the staff and has been very supportive of them. The staff members want to reach out and we all want to provide help and support."

"It's been overwhelming that people care so much about our family," echoed Kay. "Jacob has been getting letters from people he doesn't even know. He got a letter from Minerva from someone who had actually drowned in a pool but was resuscitated and brought back to life. He said, 'see Jacob, there is hope!'"

The support network is needed.

"It's not good," Kay offered. She observed the irony in losing a daughter because of her dedication to her profession. "She died going home from school because she didn't want her sub without certain material. That's the kind of teacher and person she was.

"We have our moments and Brent has his moments," she continued. "There are enough of us that when someone is down the others pick them up."

Another daughter, Melissa was very close to her sister. "She spends a lot of time with Jacob," Kay said. Jennifer was the oldest of Kay and Richard Miller's four children.

It was Melissa who scooped up Madilynn and gently held her when Brent told the little girl about her mom.

"Jennifer taught her children well," Kay said. "They have a faith in God and heaven that is unshakable. Even Madilynn gets it on her 4-year-old level.

"It's been very hard. That one phone call changed Brent's life forever and the children's lives and our lives too. That is the thing we are trying to process. You see that smile of hers in every picture. That was her signature. Everyone who knew her would comment on that smile.

"I haven't been mad at God. I had her for 33 years," Kay added showing in her eyes the kind of sorrow that only a parent who has lost a child carries. "My husband made the comment last week saying that some people will say this is meant to be or God called her name. I don't believe that. I think God is crying with us. I know if Jennifer had a choice she would be here with her husband and her children. But she didn't gave a chance; she tried to steer away as much as she could to avoid the accident but she didn't have a chance," Kay said with a cracking voice.

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The future remains day-to-day. "Jacob really believes he is going to walk again," Brent said. "He is a determined and intelligent little boy. I want him to have dignity when he goes to school. His mom would be proud. Her family was first. She loved teaching and she loved farming but her family was first to her.

"I was going to buy my wife one of those snuggies for Christmas," he said. "I was going to buy her a gold necklace. She never wanted jewelry. She was very humble and never wanted anything for herself.

"I had her for 15 years. One phone call can really change a guy's life. The phone call easily could have easily been to bury three instead of one. It would've been four; I couldn't fathom losing my kids. My wife and I had talked about that. It scares me that I could be alone the rest of my life; of not having that special person you can to talk to. Night times are really tough for me."

Brent has admirably righted himself. He has to. There is no choice. His job is calling and the demand right now is to be the strongest father he can be.

There will be the expenses that medical insurance doesn't cover. Expenses for the trips back-and-forth to Pittsburgh.

"I know what I have to do for my kids," he said. "Someone had said something about how strong I've been." He then paused and said, "I have to be strong. If I wasn't Jennifer would come back and kick my butt! But seriously, I've been doing worse lately handling this."

Brent's hardest moment came when he had to tell his precious, little 4-year-old daughter that mommy was never coming home again.

"I explained it to her by talking about Rufus, a dog we had that died," Brent said. "I told her that you can't build stairs to go to heaven to see him. I told her mommy went up to be with him."

Madilynn knows that angels don't need steps to come down during the night.

"She writes notes to her mommy and puts them in a jar," Brent explained. In the morning, they are gone. "She thinks angels come down and take notes to her mommy." Actually the angels, wink, are the family members looking after her. But don't ever tell Madilynn that.

Brent is anxious to see how Jacob responds to rehabilitation. "He will ask me, 'daddy are they sure I'm not going to walk again?'" said Brent, choking with emotion.

Jacob is scheduled to have a cast removed next week. It is part of the physical healing process. He has announced a goal. When - not if, mind you - it is achieved it will become part of the emotional healing process.

"He plans on showing cattle at the fairs," Kay said.

Just like his mommy and daddy did. Fate owes him that.

 
 

 

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