ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) - As the head majorette for the Rock Hill High School marching band, Elaine Thomasson once led parades, twirling her baton in a fashion that earned her “Miss Majorette of America” honors.
Her first - and only job - would largely take Elaine Thomasson Baker out of the public spotlight. But for nearly 50 years, Rock Hill schools had no bigger cheerleader.
Baker officially retired after 49 years and two weeks with the Rock Hill School District. Add the 12 years she spent as a student in Rock Hill, and Baker has spent all but eight of her 69 years immersed in the schools.
For the last 41 years she was the district’s first - and only - public information officer. In her role as the district spokeswoman she informed the media of school closings because of bad weather and about decisions of the school board and superintendents. Once she talked with national television anchor Peter Jennings about a tuberculosis outbreak at Rock Hill schools.
Her “I’ll call you back” responses would make reporters on deadline cringe. They needed immediate information. But Baker had one simple rule when dealing with the media: wait until you are fully prepared. “You don’t speculate. Honest and truthful is the only road to go,” she said.
The result, said current board chairman Jim Vining, is, “no one else has as much impact, control over the perception of the district as Elaine.”
But it was her behind-the-scenes work where Baker’s passion, dedication and love for Rock Hill schools shined brightest.
“She was the school district’s momma,” said Wayne Wingate, a local businessman and Rock Hill High School graduate who has also given much back to his school system.
Baker’s official job description - if she ever had one - might have filled a couple of pages.
All she did, said former Rock Hill superintendent of schools Randy Bridges, would have filled at least three or four more single-spaced pages.
“You almost had to be the superintendent to understand the value, professionalism, and knowledge she brought to the school system and to the community,” said Bridges, who is now superintendent of Florence District 1 schools in South Carolina.
Baker quietly slipped away before he official last day.
Her last act was to pack all the mementos in her corner office, including an extensive collection of apples in all shapes, sizes and materials. All of the apples were gifts. Among the last apple gifts is a small painting done specifically for her. It shows a golden apple with a tear, atop a book with her name on it.
“I wish I could open that book,” Baker said.
Baker’s quiet exit befits her personality, said Kathy Pender, former school board chair and Rock Hill City Council member. “She was soft-spoken, capable, and firm,” Pender said.
And unflappable too, added Jane Peeples, also a former board chair. “I’ve never see her thrown by anything.”
Quiet, effective, professional are the words colleagues, superintendents and board members use to describe Baker.
But the traits that set her apart, they said, were her attention to detail, and her knowledge of the schools, the school district and the community. Her institutional knowledge will be impossible to replace, they said.
For someone who has committed so much of Rock Hill school history to paper, Baker says she started at the district office without even filling out a job application.
A friend told her the school district office was looking for a secretary. She had just graduated Winthrop College - now Winthrop University - with an associate degree in secretarial sciences. Walking into the school district’s office she encountered her former Central Elementary School principal Grady Love.
Love was then the school district’s director of personnel. After a brief conversation he hired her on the spot, understanding she could work for only two weeks before getting married to Mike Baker and going on her honeymoon. (Her retirement coincided with their 49th wedding anniversary.)
On June 5, 1966, in a bright yellow dress, Thomasson reported for her first day of work, ready to practice everything she had learned. Most important were lessons taught by her parents, Bud and Vada: “Do the best job you can do, and do it until it’s done. Don’t be a clock watcher.”
Larry White was superintendent when Baker started at the district office, one of about 15 employees. During her career she would work with seven other superintendents - Bill Proctor, Jeff Savage, Joe Gentry, Phil McDaniel, Randy Bridges, Lynn Moody and Kelly Pew - and three who held the job on an interim basis, Sam Foster and Belton Taylor, who served as co-interim superintendents, and John Taylor.
Each superintendent came with their own way of doing things. One of Baker’s greatest skills, said former superintendent Lynn Moody, was her ability to reinvent herself with each new boss.
Superintendents would rely on Baker’s knowledge of past practices and the ways of the community.
Often Baker would tell superintendents or school board chairs “this is how we have done this in the past,” and then quickly add, “but you don’t have to do it that way.”
Joe Gentry, superintendent from 1981 to 1993, said her knowledge of the community was invaluable during his tenure. One of the school’s priorities then was more community involvement, Gentry said.
“A lot of that fell into Elaine’s lap,” he said, “people knew her.”
More importantly, Gentry said, “they trusted her.”
So did other superintendents and school board chairs.
Often they counted on Baker’s quiet counsel to help guide them.
Moody said there wasn’t a day that she and Baker didn’t talk about the “quality and perfection” the school district should reach for.
Peeples said she always learned from her talks with Baker. “She knew how to read the tea leaves,” said Peeples, an important perspective as the School Board redrew attendance boundaries during Peeples’ time as chair.
Besides superintendents and school board chairs, students also benefited from Baker’s counsel.
Before school board meetings, Baker chatted with the students who were selected to talk about themselves and their schools. Many would rehearse their presentations before the meeting with Baker. To make sure everything went smoothly Baker would often give the school board chair a list of questions tailored to the students’ accomplishments or interests.
Teachers and principals sought Baker’s help too.
One of her yearly duties was to help select and prepare the district’s teacher of the year for the annual state competition. Three district teachers have won the award - Hazel Joiner, Bryan Coburn and Patti Tate. Several others have been finalists with Baker’s help.
“She coached us all,” Moody said, “and moved us forward.”
In her near 50-year career Baker saw much change in Rock Hill schools.
She was there when Proctor was hired as superintendent in 1968 to develop a plan to integrate Rock Hill schools. The plan resulted in the closing of the all-black Emmett Scott High School.
Rock Hill schools integrated over a three-year period. Initially Baker thought the plan was “working wonderfully.” The more she talked to black parents she understood that they had lost so much of their community and the identity that came with Emmett Scott.
Baker set out to not only to capture the history of all of Rock Hill schools, but to make sure the history was celebrated.
She notes she was there for “old math, new math, common core math and new math again.”
She saw all sorts of technological changes, in the classroom and in the way she delivered the district’s message. She started with typewriters and mimeograph machines and finished with computers and smartphones.
When she started most of the communication was one way, from the district down, Baker said. Now so many people are involved in crafting the message that there were times she longed for the older, simpler way.
But Baker maintains one thing hasn’t changed - the district’s best communicators are its teachers.
Baker also shares a kindred soul with the teachers. For a short time Baker, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, taught at the Career Development Center, now the Applied Technology Center.
The classroom experience, she said, was part of a plan to prepare her to be a high school principal.
But when that door opened, Baker decided she liked the flexibility of working in the district office.
Her decision may also have been influenced by her confidence.
“I had a couple of chances to leave the district,” Baker said. “But I was afraid I might not do well. I didn’t want to take that chance. I’m not much of a risk taker.”
Baker filed her retirement notice with the district in March, hoping that she would be gone when school finished. She came close to that goal, but her summer calendar already includes a few days earmarked for district work.
The district office celebrated her departure with a special luncheon. She also attended the district’s annual retirement dinner, an event that she had planned for years.
In her final weeks, Baker said she got so many Olive Garden gift cards that “I could eat there for the next four years.”
And as her last day approached the normally stoic Baker admitted the emotions were “sweeping over me.”
Her first plans in retirement are to take two extended trips with her husband, one along the Eastern seaboard and another along the West coast.
She will also have to adjust to being retired, something Mike has been for 13 years.
“I’ve got to find a hobby,” she said.
Some of her time will be spent on one of her passions, the crossword puzzle. She does them for speed and difficulty. When she’s aiming for speed she wants to finish a puzzle in 10 to 15 minutes. When she’s focused on difficulty, “I like it when I struggled, but I won’t let it defeat me for long.”
Regardless of where or what she is doing, “the school district will never be far from my thoughts,” Baker said.
Looking ahead Baker said she will continue to learn. “If you stop learning, you stop growing,” she said.
And, with a very long first chapter written, Baker said her story “has more chapters to write.”
Information from: The Herald, https://www.heraldonline.com
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