The West Australian
Surf and service ace
RODNEY BAKER Surf lifesaver, company manager Born: North Fremantle, 1928 Died: Mandurah, aged 90 years
Late in the morning on Monday November 12, 1951, Alexander Finlay, his wife, and niece, got into difficulty about 160m off Scarborough Beach. A strong current was carrying them further south, and out to sea. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Carlin and 23-year-old Rod Baker, both surf lifesavers, rescued them.
Rod had swum out without a surf belt, and supported both Findlay and his niece while Carlin, with a belt, assisted the wife to shore. Meanwhile another two young men were also in difficulty, some distance further out. Carlin was too exhausted to help, and Rod rescued them without assistance.
Both rescuers received bronze medals in early 1952 from the Royal Humane Society for their off-duty rescue. Their citations were one of the first documents issued in the name of Elizabeth, the yet uncrowned Queen Elizabeth II.
Rod began serious swimming at the age of nine, among the Fremantle fishing boats. His motivation was a love of the water and his drive. He was a fierce competitor. At school, he regularly beat older boys at carnivals. After a six-year break because of World War II, the 2.5km Swim Through Perth resumed in February 1945.
Seventeen-year-old Rod finished three seconds behind the winner, club mate Miss Peach Tait. For 16 years, between 1998 and 2015, he was in FINA’s top 10 in the world as a long-course swimmer. In 2008, he was Number 1 for the 100, 200, 400 and 800m freestyle for his 80-84 age group.
Rod was equally competitive in the surf, especially during the 1940s and 1950s against the Cottesloe Surf Life Saving Club’s champion belt and surf swimmer, Don Morrison. Rod won the State Surf Belt title in 1961 while competing for the Bunbury Surf Club, and swam second in 1962 to Olympian John Ryan. He was a member of the WA State team, and then was the only West Australian selected in the Australian team that won every event at an international carnival in New Zealand in 1961.
Service was central to Rod Baker’s life, as a lifesaver, commercial traveller, and company manager.
Rodney Walter Baker was born in North Fremantle on August 8, 1928, following brother Gordon. His father, Beverley Moulton Baker, was an incapacitated World War 1 veteran who was employed as a caretaker for the stock and station company, Dalgety, in the West End of Fremantle. Mother Doris Caroline Addison was occupied with home duties. When Rod was 10, the family moved to central Perth, as caretakers for two Dalgety properties. Multicultural family life in Fremantle was vibrant; in central Perth it was almost non-existent. Rod missed his friends, his academic excellence slumped, and he couldn’t wait to leave school. At parental insistence he attended night school where he met the Hopkins brothers who urged him to join the Scarborough Surf Life Saving Club, which he did for the 1941/42 season. At 14, he was too young to gain the surf bronze medallion but was soon the club’s best swimmer.
Doris Baker, a devout Christian, had encouraged Rod to become a choirboy at St George’s Cathedral. Short-lived as this was, it stimulated a lifelong interest in music and stage performance. He had asked his mum if he could go to the Scarborough Surf Club on Sunday rather than sing in the choir. He preferred to save people, he said, rather than save souls. And surf lifesaving was a community service that saved people.
G & R Wills, in Wellington Street, Perth, was a wholesale clothing distributor. Rod started as a junior and worked his way up to be WA manager. On December 20, 1952, he married Pamela Joy Rennie — they had met at a dance in Cottesloe.
They had two daughters, Kerry Janeen (1955) and Merrilee Judith (1958). Wife and daughters survive him.
The Trigg Island surf club was established in 1953, with Rod one of its eight founding members. In its first State championships, the club won the 1954 blue-ribbon event, the Rescue and Resuscitation. Rod was a member of the team that went on to win a bronze medal in that event at the Australian championships.
A company promotion transferred the Baker family to Bunbury in 1956, with Rod as G & R Wills’ South West commercial representative. Seven years later, a promotion brought them back to Perth.
While in Bunbury, Rod joined the Bunbury Surf Club and as club captain and president, introduced a more disciplined approach to the club’s activities, including early morning training. “The club made it clear that everyone should turn up for this, juniors, boaties, all in together,” he recalled.
“Weekends we were usually busy on the beach, for the benefit of the public. So, weekdays were the best opportunity for extra club practice.” Clubmates included Olympic gold medallists Kevin O’Halloran and David Dickson.
Rod and Pamela retired to Mandurah in 1998. He continued to swim, with the Mandurah Mannas and in the Aussie Masters. He also joined the Murray River Music and Drama group, and with Rod Mayes, brought smiles to many in aged care homes through skits performed by The Two Rods.
Rod Baker died on September 30 from metastasised bone cancer. His framed green-and-gold cap, No. 53, a trophy from the New Zealand tour, still hangs on the wall of the family home.
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