A few weeks ago I received the heart-breaking news that a wonderful friend had passed away. I met Sandra Baker on my first day of work at the Heinz History Center, and (dramatic pause) was immediately steam-rolled by her. I was at a place in life where I was barely a novice but she… she was in her element. She was the Director of Volunteer Services and as the Docent Coordinator I would be working with her to identify and train volunteers interested in giving tours. What I didn’t know on that first day was that I had met someone who would leave a profound mark on me.
Sandra is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ people. I know that I will never again meet a woman who was quite like her. She loved her work; engaging volunteers, learning their personal stories, and helping them research and represent the history of Pittsburgh was, as she often said, her dream job. She was brilliant, but she never really let you know exactly how intelligent she was. AND… She. Could. Write. I don’t mean like a PR person or a blogger either. She was in a different league from a different era. It didn’t matter if it was a presentation, an email, or a research paper. She had a way of taking you on a winding journey that could cause tears or belly laughs at the turn of a phrase. For the rest of my life I will miss opening up Sandra’s emails.
Sandra was a wise and caring counsel to those in need. It wasn’t uncommon to find colleagues in her office when they were stressed or looking for an honest opinion. Over the last few weeks I have heard countless stories from co-workers and friends about Sandra being there for them in their time of need; whether it was during a death, a divorce, or a work-issue she was willing to listen and really absorb their grief and help steady people in their worst moments.
Realizing that she did this for everyone I began to wonder where she found these endless wells of inner-strength. But this Friday, at her memorial service at the History Center, I listened to stories about Sandra’s early life. Raising a daughter by herself, working her way through college, dropping out several times when she feared she wouldn’t be able to provide for her family, taking on multiple jobs, working as a burlesque dancer (Wait…What? But then again if you knew Sandra that’s not really that surprising). I realized that Sandra was always a woman to be reckoned with. She was an original, a personality who lived life and didn’t take it for granted. She was a force of nature and I never got the chance to tell her, but I am a better person for knowing her…I want to live life the same way Sandra did, as we all should… do your own thing and to hell with anyone who says different.