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Graduating Blugold is nontraditional in multiple ways

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: John "Sarge" Baker has been a positive influence on UW-Eau Claire's physics and astronomy department ever since he enrolled as a nontraditional student, according to faculty members. He is finishing his student teaching at Rice Lake High School. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Every day during his undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, John “Sarge” Baker could be seen strolling across campus to class, to tutor a physics student or to volunteer for a fundraiser.

You couldn’t miss Baker with his signature cloak flowing behind him.

“I wear a cloak every day,” Baker says. “To me, it’s comfortable. Some people wear a hat; I wear a cloak.”

Those who know Baker, who graduates in May with a degree in physics and math education, see much more than a nontraditional student in a cloak, says his academic advisor Dr. Erik Hendrickson, professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department.

“Here’s someone who doesn’t need to be going to college,” Hendrickson says. “He has a family and a successful business. What is this larger-than-life figure doing here in his flowing cape? Oh, yeah, he loves physics, he’s good at it and he’s a great people person. He works hard, puts in the necessary time and effort, has great time-management skills and really enjoys helping others.”

As he wraps up his collegiate career and prepares to graduate in May, Baker is student teaching at Rice Lake High School. His goal is to teach physics in a Chippewa Valley school district.

UW-Eau Claire faculty members who watch Baker collaborate with his fellow Blugolds in the physics and astronomy department’s seminar room, where students work on homework and enjoy each other’s company, see a quality educator in the making.

Dr. Lyle Ford, professor of physics and astronomy, calls Baker “a really friendly person who genuinely wants to help people.”

“He is, by nature, an inclusive person and he was a wonderful collaborator with his peers in classes,” Ford says. “A regular in our seminar room, he was always ready to contribute a helping hand, for instance, working with peers who needed help in class or giving a student’s perspective to visitors considering attending UWEC.

“What stands out to me about Sarge is his enthusiasm for everything he does. He was always interested in whatever we were covering in class and thinking about how it could be useful.”

Baker grew up in California and studied chemistry at two colleges before leaving school when “life happened.” He uprooted and followed his girlfriend to Wisconsin in 1992. He spent four years in the U.S. Army and upon his return to Eau Claire after his military commitment, he “started doing the DJ thing.”

Over the ensuing 25 years, Baker estimates that his music and sound business has entertained at about 1,000 weddings and other events. He has continued to run the sound and light shows for annual anime and gaming events in Madison and Eau Claire.

Baker also operated a game store on Water Street, and about nine years ago he started teaching after-school programming in Chippewa Falls using the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons.”

“It reminded me how much I missed teaching,” Baker says, recalling how he tutored others while attending college in California.

Baker enrolled at UW-Eau Claire and has been a positive influence on the physics and astronomy department and its students ever since.

Dr. Jim Rybicki, associate professor in physics and astronomy, taught Baker in several classes and in each, watched as Baker connected with his classmates and created a learning community. During labs, Baker often took time away from his own experiments to assist other students.

“What stands out to me about Sarge is his natural inclination to help others learn,” Rybicki says. “When COVID forced us to move to distance learning, Sarge was the first one to suggest different online ways that classmates could stay in touch and keep working together.”

Baker says he’s always had a knack for mathematics and a love of physics.

“Physics is the reason for mathematics,” Baker says. “Now all the stuff I did in math, I understand why I needed to do it.”

During his years at UW-Eau Claire, Baker admits he sometimes felt like he didn’t fit in because he was significantly older than his classmates and, sometimes, even his instructors. But he also found it to be an advantage in his studies.

“In a way, it’s easier than when I was a kid,” Baker says. “I’m a little more serious about it. I think I missed one day of class (at UW-Eau Claire) and that was because my van blew up on the way to school.

“Now I get the homework done as soon as possible and don’t wait until the last second. That makes a big difference because it allows me to understand the material a little better. I have time to actually think about it before I turn it in.”

Baker’s experience also has been helpful as he tutors students in physics and math.

“I’ve really enjoyed helping the young kids,” Baker says. “It’s different when you’re 19 or 20 and when you’re 50. I just pick it up better. A lot of the younger kids who are in the Society of Physics Students look to me like a father figure because I’m older and willing to sit down with them and talk to them.”

It’s a trait that will serve him well as a physics teacher.

“He is a really friendly person who genuinely wants to help people,” Ford says. “He is good at finding ways to draw people in and his positive outlook helps keep people going through rough patches.”