tofino profile - spencer baird

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 outbuildings.

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 meant tea."

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 it."

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 world view.

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'.

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Tofino profile of Spencer Baird, written by Shirley Langer for Tofino Time Magazine in February 2004.

tofino time february 2004

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