Nancy was always up to something: creating, fixing or finding her own unique solution – even if she was the only one who could identify the problem.
Nancy was born in Washington, D.C., to Norman and Mariam Baker, and then grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later in White Plains, New York, with her two sisters, Patricia and Jane Baker.
Nancy always wanted to fly and got her first flight training and earned her pilot’s license in 1937 in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. After graduating with a business degree from Bergen Junior College in Hackensack, New Jersey, she worked as a welder at Piper Aircraft in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, (1941-43).
Nancy joined the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943 for training in Sweetwater, Texas, where Ginny Wood was a roommate. After training, she was stationed in Wilmington, Delaware, for the Ferry Command where she met Celia Hunter.
Nancy was well known in Fairbanks as one of the WASPs who called Fairbanks home after World War II.
During the war, Nancy shuttled airplanes across the continental United States, flying planes such as the P-40, P-47, P-51 and P-63 direct from the factories to the coasts where they were shipped to Europe and Asia. The Thunderbolt and Mustangs were her favorites to fly.
Unfortunately, she never got to fly planes to Alaska as they would not allow WASPs to fly over foreign lands; Canada or Mexico. The WASPs were finally recognized as veterans in 1977.
In July 2009, Congress honored Nancy and the other surviving WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal. She was dedicated to her fellow WASP veterans, keeping up with newsletters and attending numerous reunions.
In May 2014, Nancy joined other war veterans on an “Honor Flight” trip to Washington, D.C., to recognize their service and celebrate the new World War II Memorial.
Her good friends and fellow WASPs, Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, brought Nancy to Fairbanks in 1950, where she could be her own person and follow her dreams. “To live where I could fly planes, and wear jeans and boots” was all she ever wanted as a young girl.
In Alaska, pursuing and shaping her independence was not only a possibility, but expected. She worked for Wien Alaska Airlines as a tour guide in Kotzebue. She then started several businesses including Eskimo Maid, a traditional kuspuk and parka making business where she contracted with Native women seamstresses in Wainwright; and Midnight Sun Shut–Eye, a comfortable sleep mask she designed and sold.
Nancy was one who saw what was needed in our community, believed in equality and worked to make a difference. She believed every family home should have a complete set of World Book Encyclopedias. Flying throughout the state of Alaska, she sold many of these treasured resources connecting everyone to the world.
Nancy’s mainstay business that is still thriving today was as the creator and keeper of the “Little Yellow Map.” One can find this map conveniently and strategically placed all over Fairbanks. It has saved many a newcomer and tourist from going the wrong way on Cushman Street or just helped them get around town. If you have ever given one of these maps to an out of town guest or have one in your glove box, you can thank Nancy.
Nancy had a few properties she rented. The dry cabin on Grenac Road gave many people their first taste of living in Alaska, and many stayed, making Fairbanks home. She seemed to seek out tenants with dogs. Her landlord philosophy was, “Tenants with dogs come home every night and take care of things. They are more reliable and they don’t move around as much.”
Over the years, Nancy was devoted to a wide assortment of cats and dogs. She may have lived alone, but she was never truly alone. They say there are dog people and cat people, but Nancy was truly both. The dogs got to ride around town and go for walks and the cats roosted on any number of perches and soft warm beds throughout the house.
Nancy was a vocal advocate and proud supporter of many causes that made Fairbanks the community it is today: KUAC, Girl Scouts, PFLAG, Animal Shelter, Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Rights, N.O.W, Compassion and Choice, Democrats, the Arts in Fairbanks, our local Food Bank, Friends of Creamer’s Field and many others.
One never had to ask Nancy where she stood on an issue -she would always tell it like it is or at least how it ought to be.
Nancy has left an indelible imprint at the national level – furthering equal rights and opportunities for women as pilots; at the local level with entrepreneurial enterprises and contributor to local agencies, and on the personal level with those whose lives she touched with her energy, vision and independent attitude. Good bye, dear friend. Fairbanks won’t be the same without you.
Please join in the celebration of Nancy Baker’s life at 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21, at the Fairbanks Pioneers’ Home located at 2221 Eagan Street off Wilbur Street. Come share stories, learn more about this amazing woman and drink a toast to our dear friend. Wear your Eskimo Maid “parkey” if you are lucky enough to have one.
As Nancy would say, “Don’t waste money on damn flowers. Donate that money to the community nonprofit of your choice.”