It was 1976, and Terry Baker was sleeping on his sister’s front porch, not because he had no place else to go, but because Mike Spinnler was meeting him there for a pre-dawn run.
Baker grew up in Washington County, Maryland, the fifth of six children living in near poverty. Not one of his parents or any of his five siblings graduated from high school.
Baker was more driven. He became a solid runner at Williamsport High School, but it was his approach to racing that made him stand out. A tenacious competitor, he would challenge any runner, regardless of age and talent. A trashing only strengthened his determination.
By the time he graduated in 1973, he had run a 4:24 mile, but it was the age of distance running giants, and Baker was overlooked by college coaches.
He went to Hagerstown Junior College and, in 1974, at the age of 18, Baker ran 2:28:48 to win the national junior college marathon. The following year, he became a national junior college champion at three-miles. By then, the major college coaches knew who Terry Baker was.
He went on to run for Auburn University, where he ran 28:55.4 for 10,000 meters, a school record that would stand for 29 years.
Around that same time, Mike Spinnler’s family moved to Hagerstown. Spinnler was an emerging high school runner, and in the spring of 1975, the two met at a local track. Baker asked Spinnler to join him for a cool down. After that, they started training together, which leads us back to where Baker lay sleeping on a front porch.
Spinnler rustled Baker, and in a short time the two were running in the dark. They’d meet again for an afternoon run. Spinnler wasn’t at Baker’s level, but Baker loved encouraging other runners.
"A lot of people’s dreams came true because of Terry," Spinnler told me.
Both runners also trained with other Cumberland Valley based runners, on a roster that would become a who’s-who listing for Mid-Atlantic running. Chris Fox, Jeff Scuffins and Jeff Smith were in that group.
After college Baker became an industrial arts teacher for Washington County Schools, a career that would last until 2015 when he retired. He worked long days, but managed to stay dedicated to running and racing.
Baker’s best year may have been 1982. In the final mile of the Cherry Blossom 10-miler that year, fighting 30-mile-per-hour headwinds, Baker was running stride for stride with Bill Rodgers, a distance running icon. Baker made a surge with about a half a mile to go, Rodgers couldn’t respond, and a humble Maryland native became a champion.
Fifteen days later, Baker finished seventh in what would become the famed "Duel in the Sun" Boston Marathon. And later in 1982, at the Charleston Distance Classic, Baker became the fastest American ever to run 15-miles, breaking two-time Olympic medalist Frank Shorter’s American record.
Baker had become one of the best runners in the world while working as a full-time teacher.
He continued running and racing for many years, all the while devoting himself to the community he grew to love, settling in the small town of Clear Spring, Maryland.
He was elected to the Clear Spring City Counsel in 2002 before being elected to serve as a Washington County Commissioner in 2006. He became popular for his reasoned approach to problems, understanding both the weight of impoverishment and the disciplines required to get beyond it.
He was reelected as a commissioner in 2010 and 2014, receiving the highest number of votes both times and serving as the president of that body for the last six years.
Now, I’ve told you all of that so that it will be more meaningful when I tell you this - Terry Baker is racing again, this time for the Congress of the United States in Maryland’s sixth district.
I don’t live in that district. I can’t cast a vote, but when I heard this news I was interested to know why he’d consider doing such a thing. I personally wouldn’t go near the world of Washington politics, and it doesn’t seem to fit him either.
Baker told me how the people in Washington Country don’t feel connected to the leaders in Washington D.C. He told me he sees danger in our divisive culture, and that he, as well as anyone, understands how to take a bad situation and make it better.
I have friends who began life in broken and abusive homes and managed to become good and successful people. I admire these friends more than anyone, because they found a way to overcome what so many others can’t.
I admire Terry Baker the same way. He grew up without the comforts that I took for granted, and despite the scarcity in his childhood, he became a determined and disciplined man.
The principles of running can do that for a person, allowing a humble beginning to lead to something great.
I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing those same principles applied for the greater good. And if those principles are espoused by a guy who’s willing to sleep on a front porch to help a friend, all the better.