Surely the world of defense and aviation journalism is a less happy place with the news that Defense Daily founder and editor emeritus Norman L. Baker passed Aug. 25, aged 93. Always smiling, quick with a joke or a story, Norman, a child of the Depression, was filled with energy and positivity.
The defense and aviation world also is a less mannerly place without Norman. “Classy” and “a class act” were some of the reactions when news of Norman’s passing spread last week. A “real gentleman,” said Claire Cirolia, a former Defense Daily marketing executive.
In addition, defense and space journalism exists minus a lot of the knowledge it had just days ago. Few reporters have Norman’s breadth of experience as a journalist. He covered six presidential administrations.
Even fewer had his practical experience in defense and aviation. An aerospace engineer by trade, Norman worked in missile development at Boeing before reporting about the industry. He’s credited with suggesting the idea of a space shuttle, in October 1955.
While he wasn’t present at the creation of modern defense journalism — Norman was busy in the Pacific, joining the military at 17, and seeing action with the Fourth Marine Division at Iwo Jima and later in Korea — you could make a strong argument that he helped usher in the start of aerospace journalism.
After Boeing, Norman was invited to move to Washington to edit “Missiles and Rockets” magazine. He founded Defense Daily and later Soviet Aerospace. In addition, he was a founder and president of the National Space Club. The predecessor to Access Intelligence LLC acquired Norman’s company, and those two publications, late in 1985.
Ironically, if you were lucky enough to work with Norman Baker, you likely never heard about his accomplishments or his extensive background. That just wasn’t Norman.
In part, he didn’t want to laud his service record over those who learned to report about defense and space issues from him, though he surely could have. Just as important, Norman, at least during his long and distinguished journalism career, preferred to look forward, not back.
After he retired, there was plenty of time to think about the old days, though not necessarily his old days. Norman spent much of his last decades studying history and writing acclaimed books about the French and Indian War.
In Norman’s defense, history surrounded him. Several decades ago he purchased a 17th century farmhouse in Virginia, some 60 miles from Washington, D.C. He restored it himself, a project that took about 50 years. As Norman worked the land around his house, he often found artifacts, including Indian warheads. Uncovering pieces of history in his Fauquier County neighborhood, walking the roads colonial soldiers had used and writing about them suited Norman just fine.
Lest you get the impression that the last years of Norman’s remarkable life were quiet and literary. Though he was entitled to a retirement of leisure, that also just wasn’t in Norman’s nature. Move, work, learn, enjoy was more his style.
In addition to spending time with family and friends, much of it outdoors working on his farm, Norman enjoyed traveling, particularly to see military buddies. Just look at the countless photos of him grinning at reunions. He had a great smile.
One of the biggest reunions Norman attended, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, in 2015, might have been bittersweet. Norman and his surviving comrades were late in the game by that point, so while it was a festive reunion, the ranks of former Marines was small.
Still, Norman was undaunted. Heck, if he was going to make the trip halfway across the globe, he was determined to enjoy it. A few months after the reunion, during his surprise 90th birthday party, Norman said that the only downsides about the Iwo Jima reunion were the arrangements. He was incensed that the Marines offered him and each of his buddies a nurse, a wheelchair and a young Marine to escort them to the stage. “I told them to get that nurse and wheelchair away from me,” Norman harrumphed, only partly in jest. He accepted the Marine escort, but he marched up to the podium unaided.
Knowing Norman, even just months shy of his 90th birthday, he likely made it to the podium a few steps before the young Marine did. It was that positive energy “thang,” as Norman would say in his Arkansas pronunciation.
That’s the way he was, almost always upbeat and pushing ahead. In today’s parlance Norman Baker would be described as someone who emitted a tremendous amount of positive energy. That’s what many of his friends and colleagues will miss most.
Seth Arenstein is a former editor of Defense Daily and Soviet Aerospace.