Former senator still pursuing her causes

One of the highlights of the Marion County Women’s Wellness Workshop last Saturday, was having retired Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker as the keynote speaker.

In her remarks, delivered without notes but with great feeling, Baker encouraged people to listen more to each other and build relationships. She also called public education the “bedrock of our future” and promoted basic caring and community.

Baker called for higher expectations from children who will rise to the occasion, and to expect more from future teachers while still in college.

“I love to walk,” she said. “I am not a jogger, I just never saw a ‘happy’ jogger, so I walk.” She said having a physical education program in every school in Kansas is a basic need.

“Being active is so important,” she said. “Staying active physically and mentally will help keep us young. By participating, we stay connected and we communicate.”

Baker, a Kansas favorite, carries many different titles. She said “Senator Kassebaum” is “officially correct,” but “Nancy Baker” is also correct.

“I believe more people around here know me as Baker than in other places. And then sometimes, I am just Nancy.”

She is also mother, and from the smiles that accompanied her stories, her favorite title might be “Grandma.”

Baker was born in Topeka and grew up in a political family. Her father, Alfred M. Landon, was a former Kansas governor and Republican presidential candidate who lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Growing up, Baker learned her future profession firsthand by listening to dinner-table discussions about current affairs and political issues.

She received a degree in political science from the University of Kansas. Soon after, she was married to Phil Kassebaum.

Baker received her master’s degree in diplomatic history at the University of Michigan during the time her husband completed his law degree.

The couple had three sons and a daughter and returned to Kansas to raise them in Maize.

They now have seven grandchildren from three children. One son, who lives in California, is single and works on film documentaries.

Baker was the first woman elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate who did not succeed her husband.

In her 18 years of political service she chaired the Labor and Human Resources Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs, and the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation.

“In looking back,” she said, “things look better back then than they do now. There was less fierceness. Now it is very hostile, and it is hard to get the parties to work together-and that is so important.”

She should know. Among her many accomplishments, she crossed the political lines to work with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy for the promotion and 1996 passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-better known as the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill.

The legislation made health care more accessible to those who change jobs or suffer from preexisting medical conditions.

“We had to work together,” Baker said. “He was the senior ranking senator, and we got it done together.”

To prepare for retirement, Baker planned on spending lots of time in Kansas and baby-sitting the grandchildren. But her plans changed when in 1996 she was married to the former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr.

In 1998 she received the American Hospital Association honorary Life Membership Award for her contribution to hospitals and health care.

Baker is now retired from her political career, but not retired from the issues that continue to matter to her.

She chairs the national Rural Health Advisory board which has 10 members from across the country.

She also is active in several other causes:

— the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which seeks to improve the health and health care of all Americans;

— Faith in Action, which focuses on medical care for small rural communities;

— the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent philanthropy which focuses on major health care issues facing the nation.

“This is my home area,” says Baker, who has a ranch in the Flint Hills. “I love being out here, I plan to be here most of the winter. This is my favorite part of the country.”

While her roots run deep in Kansas, her husband’s run equally deep in Tennessee. The two are often in different places.

“He comes up here with me often,” she said, “but right now he is busy campaigning for Bush in Gore’s home state of Tennessee.”

One issue of importance to Baker is social isolation, and specifically of the elderly.

“(Social isolation) happens more easily when we get older,” she said. “When it happens to the younger ones it is usually for reasons of insecurity.

“It is very important that we stay active physically and mentally,” she added. “And an event such as we are having today is wonderful. This has a great deal of merit for the elderly.”

The soft-spoken Kansas powerhouse carries with her the same passion and energy for people she had while serving in an “official” capacity. Saturday evening, after a busy day with friends and family, she will be appearing as Ethel Chauvenet in the comedy, “Harvey,” at a Topeka high school to help raise scholarship money for drama students.

“I don’t do things like this very often,” she said. “But I enjoy it.”

Baker closed her remarks to Marion County women with an African challenge she has carried in her purse for some time. This writing came from her daughter’s Peace Corps experience in Nigeria:

Not to know is bad.

Not to wish is worse.

Not to hope is unthinkable.

Not to care is unforgivable.

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