Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beyond the Call

Pete Baez died this winter in a care facility in Reston, Virginia. I met Baez several times and had some long-distance business dealings with him during my years in the U.S. Forest Service.

Baez’ passing might seem a matter of little consequence to some, but thanks to Bill Hamilton, retired head of publishing for the Forest Service, we have enough details of our colleague’s life to know he was an outstanding member of “The Greatest Generation.”

Baez was born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1921. He grew up in Brooklyn, and later earned a liberal arts degree nearby at Drew University in New Jersey. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew “The Hump” with the Air Transport Command in India during World War II. After the war, Baez returned to school to gain a bachelors degree at Cornell University and a masters at the University of Minnesota, both in soil science.

He started his civilian government employment as a soil scientist in the West with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then the Corps of Engineers. Later, Baez became a professional working with the language he had mastered in an editorial position with the U.S. Navy. He moved to the Department of Agriculture in 1964 and spent the last 25 years as an editor for the Forest Service, retiring in 1994.

That history is mildly intriguing, to be sure. What came later is absolutely amazing. Baez followed up his half-century of federal service by continuing to work in the Forest Service national office, as an editor and in other jobs, throughout most of the 15 years after he retired until he died at age 88. He worked as a volunteer for no pay. In his spare time, Baez also volunteered as a tutor for children learning English in the DC area.

Incidentally, the first time I met Baez, in 1970, I unwittingly asked the obvious question. Was he related to Joan Baez, the prominent folk singer who was then making a name in anti-establishment circles? Baez muttered, “Yeah, I’m her uncle,” and promptly changed the subject. Coworkers told me he considered his niece’s public activities an affront to the family’s conservatism, and he disliked talking about her.

I worked with many fine people in the Forest Service who gave back much more to America than it gave to them. One scientist, Walt Mueggler, stayed on for more than 15 years after he retired, and contributed more than 40,000 hours of his time to research work in the Intermountain West. I know of dozens of others who made large contributions of their personal time, and sometimes even their personal resources, while they were regular employees or retirees.

Next time you hear some idiot bad-mouthing government workers, think about Baez and Mueggler. Ask yourself how many people retired from General Electric or any other company you can think of and stayed with the organization as unpaid volunteers for another 15 years. Name two.

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