Dierdre Baker, organizer of the town’s community Christmas Breakfast and a cancer survivor, was the Grand Marshal of the 2012 Brattleboro Fourth of July parade.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Dierdre Baker, organizer of the town’s community Christmas Breakfast and a cancer survivor, was the Grand Marshal of the 2012 Brattleboro Fourth of July parade.

‘One of the best people I ever knew’

Deirdre Baker, a beloved community volunteer, endured a decade of surgeries for cancer before dying in a weekend blaze

BRATTLEBORO — When Deirdre Baker was named grand marshal of this town's Fourth of July parade in 2012, she didn't let that morning's storm clouds dampen her spirits.

She already had weathered too much for that.

The year before, Baker was planning a free public Christmas breakfast when, set to celebrate her 50th birthday, she was unable to shake a stuffy nose. Doctors said it wasn't a cold or allergies, but instead sinus cancer. To reach and remove it, they'd have to sacrifice her right eye.

Many people would have melted down. Baker instead bucked up, enduring six operations and just as many weeks of radiation before donning a pirate patch to feed 800 people a holiday meal and lead an annual fundraising Polar Plunge.

A decade and countless more procedures later, Baker appeared to have beaten the odds.

Then local firefighters received a call about a blaze shortly before 10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25.

The next day, authorities confirmed what friends and neighbors feared: The 61-year-old community volunteer had died in the resulting two-alarm blaze.

The flames burned hot enough to keep responders from entering until after midnight, when they reported finding Baker deceased on the second floor.

"My heart breaks," resident Maddy Lynch posted amid a torrent of social media reaction. "Dee was one of the best people I ever knew."

Baker grew up in the Lexington Avenue house she died in, graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 1980, then went on to work at the local Marina restaurant when she wasn't raising her son, Lucas.

Baker loved traditions like Brattleboro's free Christmas Breakfast, which the late car salesman Charlie Slate began in 1982 as a gathering place for locals who didn't have one.

Baker took over Slate's duties in 2007, vowing she'd volunteer at least five years. She was planning her fifth event in 2011 when the community suffered a spring fire at downtown's Brooks House business block and summer flooding after Tropical Storm Irene.

Baker hoped that year's breakfast would serve as a reboot. Then she was diagnosed with cancer.

"The doctors said I need to sit and lay low," she told this reporter in 2011. "I'm not very good at it, but my body is telling me that, too."

Baker's heart said something else, spurring her to wrangle enough volunteers, pancake batter, and maple syrup for not only 700 attendees but also 100 deliveries to shut-ins and emergency workers.

"I've had so much support from my friends and community," she said of the people who shaved their heads in solidarity or drove her to treatments. "This is my way of paying it forward."

Baker continued in her role until 2013, when Slate's daughter Judy Flynn decided to take over the event her father started. Then Flynn was diagnosed with cancer and died unexpectedly a week before Christmas, leading Baker to return before passing on the tradition to Flynn's daughter and granddaughter.

(Friends soon will announce plans to honor Baker with a special Christmas Breakfast next month at the Marina restaurant, with donations to benefit her son.)

"My sister was an Angel," brother Shawn went on to post on Facebook. "She now has her wings. Rest in peace you will be missed by so many."

In turn, longtime WTSA-FM news director Tim Johnson recalled interviewing Baker at many of the community events she coordinated.

"I found it amazing that, through a long fight with cancer, she had helping other people on the top of her mind," he said.

Johnson was an announcer at the 2012 Fourth of July parade, which Baker led as grand marshal. Waking that morning to showers, Baker nonetheless walked to the starting line to find a chauffeur-driven convertible, a dozen red roses, and a stereo system set to blast the Barbra Streisand classic "Don't Rain on My Parade."

Minutes before the kickoff, the clouds cleared. Baker soaked up the applause and adulation of hundreds of townspeople. After, she joked she had heard the show tune repeat one too many times.

Yet, as her smile confirmed, she thoroughly savored her moment in the sun.

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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