Tofino Profiles: Spencer Baird (Pappy)
by Shirley Langer
Lots of people know Spencer Baird as Pappy, the result of father and
son bearing the same name. Age and genes are bending Pappy, but as
a person, he's a straight arrow, and still very much a man of
action. Looking at Spencer, dressed in gumboots and practical clothing,
you'd never guess he was and is, a man of science. He's
also a man that enjoys work, so when you put those two things together,
you find that Spencer has spent many years working at applying science
in practical ways that provide for the necessities of everyday life.
Take his home at Catface, for example. While he does collect water
in 1000 gallon plastic barrels, he also built a water delivery system
comprised of two stave tanks that hold 3000 gallons each. Electricity?
He put in 400 feet of pipe with 20 feet of head pressure to run a small
turbine that produces hydroelectric power to electrify the house and
Hot water? Solar water heaters, of course. "I've always
intended to live very simply," say Spencer, "but somehow,
I always end up making things complicated."
Spencer's attempt to live "simply" began in 1974,
when he took early retirement from academic life, and he and wife Judy
moved to Catface in Clayoqot Sound. Spencer and Judy were among the
first of a group of disaffected Americans, who, fed up with Yankee
politics, came to Clayoquot Sound. "Until the early '90s,
there was quite a community at Catface. Judy got the idea to hold high
teas at 4pm on Sundays. At the first gathering, people thought 'high
tea' would involve marijuana. But Judy was an Englishwoman. She
Spencer, now a Canadian citizen, loved Canada for many reasons, one
being the very few commercials on Canadian radio in those days. "The
commercials on u.s. radio lasted one full minute," recalls Spencer. "They
drove me crazy when I was driving to and from work, so I built a 'commercial
killer' device that turned off the sound for a minute." Now
there's an innovative man of action!
I ask Spencer about his work, his career. "I was tricked into
higher education," he begins. "The only thing I read as
a kid was comic strips and the sports pages. I was definitely not interested
in college. I graduated high school in 1938, and my dad bribed me,
tricked me actually, into attending college by promising me money for
a full year of travel in Europe if I enrolled in university and graduated.
It was a trick because he knew a war was coming. If I had been reading
the front page, not just the funnies, I would never have fallen for
Once started, Spencer continued university, and earned a degree in
organic chemistry. His first job was at Dartmouth University, working
to synthesize an anti-malaria medicine, since the Japanese had occupied
the places where the natural product was obtained. He worked at General
Electric for several years – "...the only time I ever had
to wear a suit and tie, and a smile when walking down the hall" (otherwise
you wouldn't be promoted). Perhaps his most interesting work
was with Nobel Prize winner Szent Gyorgi at Woods Hole Massachusetts,
developing technology that was the forerunner of today's medical
technology known as mri, or magnetic resonance induction.
His academic career taught him how to learn, and the guy is unstoppable. "You
can do anything if you're willing to read a book," he says.
That's how he converted his gasoline engine half-ton Chevy truck
to electric power. Now he's planning to find a suitable car to
convert, because maximum range of the truck, which packs close to a
half ton of batteries, is a Tofino-Ucluelet round trip. Spencer likes
boats too. He owns three: a 14 foot speed boat called The Owl, a 12
foot aluminum fishing skiff called Needlefish, and an 18 foot home-built
wooden boat called the Hafanamp, run in the summer with solar panels. "When
I first bought solar panels, they were only guaranteed for five years.
Yet the ones I purchased 22 years ago are still running with no diminishment
of power." He wonders aloud why more people don't invest
in solar technology.
Spencer's built-in speedometer doesn't show any significant
slacking off of get-up-and-go, though he acknowledges matter of factly
that he's getting old. When I arrived to interview him, he was
outside throwing compost around, and he says he plans to build a small
greenhouse. And he's a ping-pong fanatic; plays every Tuesday
night at the community school. Nor has he given up reading for the
easy comfort of the tube. "Do you like Barbara Kingsolver?" he
asks. When I answer yes, he lends me her latest book, Small Wonders,
a pristine copy. "She elaborates exactly my point of view on
so many subjects, so I bought 25 copies for family and friends and
sent them off," he says. On the cover of Small Wonder, there's
a quote, "Soulful and soul searching … a passionate invitation
to readers to be part of the crowd that cares about the environment,
peace and family " This alone told me volumes about Spencer "Pappy" Baird's
Spencer is more than an interesting fellow; he's a really swell
fellow, and a really progressive fellow who could serve as a prototype
of the life-long learner. What's more, he conscientiously applies
what he learns in order to be more environmentally friendly and responsible.
Despite their years, husband and wife team Spencer and Judy Baird are
not people leaving things to the younger generation, but progressive
thinkers and doers we all can learn a lot from.
Shirley langer has resided in Tofino since 1995. She discribes
herself as 'a woman about town, with a well developed civic consciousness'.
Tofino profile of Spencer Baird, written by Shirley Langer for Tofino Time Magazine in February 2004.