Winnipeg’s oldest Jewish resident, 109, still gets out

Sam Baker

WINNIPEG — Sam Baker is beginning to show his age. He uses a walker now. Last time I saw him, maybe a year ago, he was getting by with a cane. He also seems more frail. And his hearing loss has worsened. But, all in all, for a man of nearly 109, he is still doing pretty well.

Although the oldest member of Winnipeg’s Jewish community doesn’t turn 109 until Dec. 19, the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre – a largely Jewish drop-in centre where Baker has been a regular for the past 20-odd years – decided to have an early birthday celebration for him on Nov. 14.

The guest of honour was ushered in to the music of Thanks for the Memories, the late Bob Hope’s theme song. Hope, like Baker, was born in 1903.

Gwen Secter began the program with a recitation of notable events that happened in 1903, ground-breaking moments such as Orville Wright’s first flight, the first transatlantic broadcast from North America to Europe, the first Model A Ford, the first modern-day World Series and the introduction of the teddy bear and Crayola crayons.

Following remarks by his niece, Judy Kaplan (who is also the Gwen Secter Centre’s president), Allan (Doc) Selig, Baker’s best friend over the past 20 years, and fellow Gwen Secter member David Rosenbaum, Baker thanked the Gwen Secter for the party and reminisced for a few minutes about his good fortune to have reached the age he has in relatively good health and having been blessed with three children (a son and two daughters), three grand children and nine great-grandchildren.

His son, Steven, credits his father’s longevity to “a lot of walking.”

“Dad used to walk a mile and a half a day until he was 95 or 96 and developed some back trouble. I remember one time when he was in his late 70s that he went for a walk and got caught in a thunderstorm. He called for a ride home. He had walked three miles.”

 Sam Baker was born aboard a ship as his family was en route to Winnipeg from their native Poland. He was the fifth son of Joe and Zlata Baker. (Two sisters were subsequently born in Winnipeg.)

Baker grew up in West Kildonan (in North Winnipeg). He attended local public schools until the age of 12, when he left school to work in his father’s tannery.

In the 1930s, he was involved in various business ventures in rural Saskatchewan with his brothers. In 1942, he bought Jo-Ann Shop, a lingerie store in Brandon, which he converted into a ladies’ apparel shop. He later opened a second women’s apparel store, Joy’s Frocks, in Yorkton, Sask.

Those were busy times. “I would often work 12-hour days,” he recalls. “I would come home for supper, then go back to the store to do some bookkeeping.”

In 1971, he moved his wife, Joan, and their three children to Winnipeg. He continued to run his store in Brandon, coming home to Winnipeg on the weekends.

He retired in the mid-1980s. His wife, Joan, died in 2002. Sam and Joan were married for 62 years.

Baker still lives in a condominium with his son. He attends services at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue and participates in the Stay Young and Gwen Secter seniors programs on a regular basis.

“I don’t go out much in the evenings,” he says “I watch television and read the papers.”

He gave up driving 10 years ago. “That was hard,” he says. “It was like losing my right hand.”

Up until five years ago, he was still travelling to visit his daughters, Michelle and Janice, who live, respectively, in Hamilton and Calgary.

“I am finished travelling,” he says. “My daughters and grandchildren will have to come here to see me.”