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Better than retirement

Olympic volunteering keeps him busy

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As he approached retirement, the 2002 Winter Olympics were just the answer for Joseph Baker. After 35 years teaching German at BYU, he was ready to try something different. Settling in on a porch swing wasn't an option for the gospel doctrine teacher in the Pioneer Ward, Sandy Utah West Stake, who is still full of energy. But volunteering to help with the 2002 Winter Games was an option. Stopping, or even slowing down, have been the last things the former bishop has had to worry about since.

His academic experience, including a doctorate from Tulane University, enthusiasm and life experience qualified him for many positions in the Winter Games volunteer pool. But he is the type who thinks retirement means more time to ski rather than administrate, so ultimately, he said in a Church News interview, he wanted to put on his boots and "slosh through the ice and snow with the athletes."

After spending months on the volunteer selection team interviewing other volunteer candidates, and working with language issues, testing and training, he will spend the actual Olympic Games serving as a "national Olympic committee assistant" for the German national delegation. Along with his fellow hosts, he will show up at the German team's lodgings each morning ready and eager to do whatever is asked of him that day related to activities such as transportation, entertainment, sightseeing and dining. "We just show up and say, 'How can we help?' " he said.

The road to participation in the Olympics actually began more than four decades ago for Brother Baker when he was called as a young man to serve in the Swiss-Austrian Mission. He said that prior to his call he dreamed of serving in Switzerland, but as soon as he got there he was assigned to Austria. He loved serving in the alpine nations and became proficient in the German language.

Upon returning home, the Draper, Utah, native studied at the University of Utah and graduated with a bachelor's degree in German. A professor encouraged him to continue his education at graduate school, leading him to New Orleans and Tulane University where he earned his doctorate in German language and literature and Germanic dialects. He said that along the way he "fell in love with Germany and all things German." Right out of Tulane, he landed on the BYU faculty teaching German, and he stayed for the duration of his career. During his tenure, he directed the international studies program and taught returned-missionary-dominated upper division classes in German cultural history.

Serving as an Olympic volunteer kept Brother Baker going at full speed after leaving BYU and a year-and-a-half later he is still an avalanche of Olympic enthusiasm. From his beginnings as an interviewer he got involved in language services, a natural for someone intimately acquainted with Utah's gold mine of foreign-language-speaking returned missionaries. He actively recruited those returned missionaries, along with academic peers, native speakers and others qualified to help host national organizing committees and dignitaries from dozens of foreign countries. He helped initiate innovative language testing that was superior to what was then available for assessing the qualifications of language volunteers. He said it was amazing that so many of his colleagues at BYU jumped in to help with the time-consuming task of scoring the oral tests.

Language was his area of expertise, but Brother Baker didn't put any limits on the assignments he accepted. He worked with crews that packaged gift bags for Olympics athletes and officials, shuttled donated cars from Salt Lake City to the various venues where they will be needed for Games transportation and helped with rehearsals for welcoming ceremonies.

After the Olympics, he plans to help with the transition to the Paralympics and will be a host for the Austrian team during those Games.

Brother Baker talked about many activities that have filled his life, from the spiritual gratification of teaching a gospel doctrine class for elderly residents at a care center to traveling the world with his wife, Karen, including several trips to Germany. So he should be able to continue to find ways to stay busy when his days as an Olympics volunteer end, including a favorite activity he has missed recently — hitting the slopes himself for some skiing.

E-mail: ghill@desnews.com