Reflections on Bruce Baker

I was recently involved in a project to create a video of “the good old days” of the field of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication). Participants in a group were asked to identify someone who inspired and influenced us. There are so many people who affected me in that way, but to single one out, I would have to choose Bruce Baker. We first met briefly in the late 1970s, after an early AAC event at NIH in Bethesda, MD. Gregg Vanderheiden and I were the last ones out of the building at the end of the day, I because I had to pack up my stuff and Gregg because he was awaiting a ride. The site was well off the main road, so getting a taxi wasn’t an easy option (This was way before mobile phones.) and I needed to get back to my hotel. Gregg said that the guy picking him up could probably give me a ride. So soon a big boat of a car came up the drive and the driver indeed agreed to drop me off. I took note that opening the trunk involved retrieving a screwdriver from under the seat. And it was clear that using a tool was not a natural thing for this guy. But I figured that I’d be safe with Gregg along and that I’d never see this guy again. Well, while I was indeed safe that day, that wasn’t the last I’d see of Bruce Baker.

A few months later, I was in DC for a conference. I was working the PRC (Prentke Romich Company) exhibit booth when Bruce came by, asking if we could talk. Bruce told me that he had an idea that could help people communicate better using talking devices, which PRC developed and manufactured. Bruce provided a lengthy description of his idea. When we parted ways, I was newly aware of the gulf between the professions of engineering (me) and linguistics (Bruce). I had no idea what he’d been talking about, but I think we came to respect each other’s passion for improving the lives of the population we were addressing.

Fortunately, Bruce was tenacious and we continued to talk in the coming months. At the time, PRC products were based on the first low power eight bit microprocessor and thus had the capability of being programmed. We embarked on a project to implement Bruce’s idea into the hardware of the PRC Express 3 communication system. It was then, when we could make selections and hear the results, that many of us first recognized the power of what Bruce had been telling us all along.

Bruce was most certainly one of the most intelligent, and otherwise different, people that I have known. The linguist was generally patient, but now and then his students’ slow appreciation for his passion was acknowledged. I remember returning to PRC from lunch in Wooster one time. I was a passenger in the back seat of Bruce’s car and we’d been discussing something where it was clear that all were not on the same page. I said something to the effect that “It’s just semantics”, and I thought Bruce was going to drive off the road. “JUST semantics?”

Bruce had a brilliant mind and great memory. This went well beyond his passion for language and linguistics. In the mid to late 1980s, we were starting to explore the European market for AAC. I remember once when Bruce and I were passengers in the back seat of a car with Brits in the front seats driving through London. I believe that this was Bruce’s first visit to the UK and he was the tour guide. He’d spot a building or monument and could tell us what it was, when it was built, by whom, what was happening in the country at the time, and perhaps even bits about the personal lives of those involved.

Bruce’s generosity is legendary. He expanded the horizons of many, many people in various ways. These included hosting their visits to Pittsburgh, including fine dining and cultural events, inviting them to accompany him on national and international business travel, and more. For some he is remembered for having provided short and long term accommodation, other financial assistance as they pursued their dreams, and more.

While Bruce has left his mark on untold numbers, the case can be made that his most significant and lasting contribution to humankind is the result of his creation of Minspeak. The impact on people with significant communication disability, their families, their support professionals, and others by the hundreds of thousands is obvious. But beyond that in specific is Bruce’s demonstration in general that good things can come when people of varied knowledge, skills, perspectives and experiences collaborate with passion to address issues. I miss him.

Barry Romich

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