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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Prince of Gilbert

by Mike Masterson | May 2, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.

May presents an opportunity to observe Mental Health Awareness Month.

I can't imagine a more appropriate tribute than remembering the positive influences one developmentally disabled man from Gilbert offered well beyond his little community nestled along the Buffalo River.

I initially wrote about this man known as The Prince of Gilbert in April 2002 and again shared his story in 2009 because his messages bear repeating.

Jack Eldon Baker's enduring impact continues to resonate decades after his passing through the message that each person's dignity and life is invaluable to the whole of humanity.

Here is an edited version from what I initially wrote about the man who called himself "Uncle Bocky" and his brief yet worthwhile life.

"Jack Eldon Baker departed his troubled world in April 2002.

"His hometown hamlet of Gilbert, located about 20 miles south of Harrison, bade him farewell at the little Christian Church. Nearly 300 young and old came from as far away as Idaho.

"They came to remember the 61-year-old man with Down Syndrome whom doctors in 1939 dismissively said wouldn't live through grade school.

"Most who knew Baker called him Uncle Bocky because that's what he called himself during his adult years. No one knows why. Yet the why wasn't important.

"It was evident from the eloquent emotions expressed over his casket that the simple man's simple life had brimmed with higher connections, shaped largely by devoted parents and townsfolk who showered him daily with the same unconditional acceptance that he so freely returned.

"The magnitude of his loss was palpable, as so many people bore the midsummer heat to offer farewell. One speaker remembered him as the 'Prince of Gilbert.' Others said he'd been an angel. Yet another compared his open, loving approach to life with that of Christ.

"While a higher IQ might help most navigate the storms of life, the genius displayed by Baker resonated from the cells of his tender heart. He intuited the place where genuine strength resides, as evidenced by his habitual weekly Sunday School reminders that 'God lives in your heart.'

"People recalled his daily strolls in the middle of the street to the Gilbert General Store and Post Office where his mother, Lucille Baker, was postmaster. She and her late husband Noel owned and operated the store for many years. Baker was younger than his two brothers, Noel Jr. and Dr. Bill Baker, the former president of North Arkansas Community College (also now departed).

"One by one, those at the service related memories of Baker such as 'hugs for everyone that lasted five minutes.' It delighted the prince for people to hand him $1 bills. But he was especially fond of the ones with a '5' inscribed on their fronts. He called them the 'big boys.'

"Baker often expressed himself by creating patchwork artwork with colorful marking pens and even sold some of it for several of those 'big boys.' He loved watching the Atlanta Braves on TV and once met Hank Aaron. But his life was centered squarely at home, the store, the post office and the adjacent river.

"The prince never met a stranger, and he proudly claimed he'd gone to school with virtually everyone he met, regardless of their age. He especially loved hot summers when he could float on his back in the crystal-clear Buffalo. Others recalled his Elvis impersonations and that Christmas he donned a Santa suit.

"I was struck by the realization that in 1939, had Baker lived anywhere other than this closely knit community, he may well have been institutionalized to endure a lonely, abbreviated life.

"Instead, in an act that everyone in Gilbert agrees was divine providence, he was given a supportive family and a community to love that loved him in return.

"Baker attended the sixth grade in nearby St. Joe and spent a brief stay at the former state Children's Colony before returning to his family. He later would tell his mother that whenever he needed to weep, he'd 'slip out behind the building alone.'

"Throughout Uncle Bocky's lifetime, especially after Lucille lost her husband and middle son, she told friends how she prayed to live just one breath longer than her youngest. She never wanted him to be without a parent, or a burden on anyone outside the family.

"Members of his expansive family are the first to say Baker's core was shaped around an unconditional love. 'He never harmed or said a cross word to anyone,' recalled his mother.

"Unlike many with far more resources who spend their lifetimes searching for purpose, I believe the prince was born with such secrets encoded in his heart. He shared them with everyone he met: 'Love one another, don't hurt others, enjoy life, be open and honest.'

"This man, who also was known to pray an hour each day, never sought to gain at the expense of another.

"The Prince drew his final breath at the North Arkansas Regional Medical Center in Harrison after suffering a heart attack at home. Oh, what a magnificent breath it was.

"Ray Wheeler, who was seated beside him at the time, later said: 'He just let the breath out slowly and this incredibly peaceful smile filled his face. It was an amazing thing to witness.'"

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet (regardless of IQ) exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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