By Leana Conway, Woodstock Resident
I have met and written about many interesting and talented people for Enjoy Cherokee Magazine. This story in particular moved and changed me. The people involved don’t see their roles as extraordinary or heroic. They say they merely did the right thing, the kind thing. Nevertheless, their deed—the seed they planted in Canton, Georgia, with their actions—grew, blossomed, and continues to bear fruit.
During the early months of 1975, America began its retreat from the Vietnam War. By May Saigon had fallen to the Communists, and American troops headed home.
Meanwhile, a Vietnamese woman who married an American was living in Waleska. Because of the unrest in her homeland, she rushed overseas to rescue her mother and sister. While there she witnessed Vietnamese people frantically trying to exit the country ahead of the Communist control. Amid the chaos was a frenzied mother who pleaded with the Waleska resident to take her eight-year-old Amerasian son, Tony, to the United States, where he might be safer. So it was that four people boarded a plane together and headed to America.
Shortly after settling back into Waleska, the local Vietnamese woman met a Canton man and shared her story. With a heavy heart she explained that housing and caring for Tony was not a permanent option for her family. The boy would most likely end up in an orphanage.
The Canton man was Elliott Rice Baker, a husband, father, and prominent attorney. “No! Don’t place that child in an orphanage. We’ll take him,” Elliot blurted.
Offering to take a child into your home sight unseen is an overwhelming commitment, especially without consulting your wife and children. Elliott and his wife, Ginnie, already had three children, Delilah “Birdie” (seventeen years old); Beth (fourteen years old); and Howard “Jay” (six years old).
After making his momentous offer, Elliott called home with excitement. His daughter Beth answered the phone. Forty-five years later Beth recalls that moment with clarity. “I picked up the phone and Daddy said, ‘How would you like to have another brother?’ I thought Mama and Daddy were pregnant. I didn’t know what to say.”
Elliot asked Beth to put her mother on the line. Elliot’s wife took the phone, listened intently, and then said, “Well, sure. Let’s do this.” Ginnie’s loving soul and brave heart joined her husband’s in taking a leap of faith.
Jay Baker, Tony’s younger brother, explains it well. “Adopting a child is a huge responsibility, and at the time, I certainly didn’t understand the magnitude of what my parents agreed to do. I now know how blessed I was to be born to Elliott and Ginnie Baker and how remarkably fortunate Tony was to find his way around the world into our home.”
“God put him in our home,” Ginnie says with a smile and a nod.
Despite political chaos, Tony originally had a good life in Vietnam. His family owned several restaurants, and he lived comfortably in a high-rise building with his birth mother and half-siblings. The Americans were losing the war, however, and a withdrawal was close at hand. Tony’s birth mother accurately predicted that life for Amerasian children in Vietnam was going to be tough, so she explained to young Tony that he was going to leave his family to seek a better life in the United States. Tony did not want to leave his family, but today he feels gratitude toward his birth mother for the foresight and courage she exhibited that set him on a good path.
Life for Amerasian children in Vietnam soon became horrific—even worse than Tony’s birth mother probably could have guessed. Children of American troops and Vietnamese women were maliciously called half-breeds. As a result many Amerasian children were dropped off at orphanages or left to fend for themselves. Street children in Vietnam were referred to as bui doi—children of dust.
In 2018 Jimmy Miller, an Amerasian adult, reported to Jackie Montalvo on NBC News, “Life in Vietnam for Amerasian children was full of bullying, abuse, and fear of the government. People called us names and threw rocks at us or beat us.” Amerasian children also were not given the opportunity for a good education.
As expected young Tony showed signs of being traumatized. He arrived at the Baker household fluent in Vietnamese and French with a small bag containing everything he had in the world. Ginnie says, “He was such a small, sad little boy; it broke my heart.” She recalls a time she found Tony crying. The language barrier prohibited understanding on both sides of the conversation. Finally Ginnie called the Vietnamese woman in Waleska to interpret. Tony was crying for rice, a simple comfort food from a world ripped away from him.
Once the young boy decided to be part of the family, he committed heart and soul. “I’m a person who doesn’t look back,” Tony says with conviction.
The baby of the family, Jay, says he doesn’t have any memories prior to Tony moving in. “One day we were a family of five and the next day we were a family of six. Tony was always family.” Jay continues, “Tony was just a couple of years older than me, so I had an instant friend and playmate.”
Beth recalls with a giggle, “Birdie and I painted Jay’s toenails until he was five, so yeah, it was a good thing Jay got some male companionship.”
In August 1975, Tony entered Canton Elementary School. The situation was new for him and for his first English-speaking teacher, Marguerite Cline. Marguerite proudly shares, “I had no resources, but I loved him the instant I met him. He knew I did, and that’s how we learned to understand each other. He was one of the brightest children I have ever taught.”
Marguerite walked Tony to Patsy Kononen’s little speech therapy room each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for speech therapy. On meeting Tony, Patsy’s first words were, “How precious!” Tony lovingly referred to Patsy as “Teach.” Patsy points out, “I learned as much from him as he did from me. He was a joy.” She chuckles when she explains that Tony often teased her and Marguerite that they did their job too well, because he loves to talk.”
By all accounts Tony was a fun-loving rascal. Tony’s eldest sister, Birdie, reminisces, “My boyfriend used to pick me up at the house. He would come in and say hello to my parents, and then we would jump in his truck and head out on our date. One day our destination was Marietta. Once we got there, we found that Tony had hidden in the back of the truck. Surprise! We were too far from home to go back, so Tony went on our date with us. Yeah, he’s been on more than one of my dates.”
Tony graduated from Cherokee High School, then the University of Georgia, and finally Mercer Law School. He married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany, who works at the Northside Cherokee Cardiac Cath Lab. Together they have two children, Tate and Anna Beth.
Tony’s first job as an attorney was practicing law in Canton with his beloved father, the late Elliott Baker. In 2007 Tony was appointed a juvenile court judge and remained there for twelve years. Tony loved his time on the bench and dedicated himself to giving every young person who came through his courtroom a “fair shake.” In 2018 Tony was elected a superior court judge. He also serves as a board member of the Cherokee County Educational Foundation and the Northside Cherokee Hospital Authority. Tony has served as a board member for Court-Appointed Special Advocates and numerous other community and civic organizations. His father, Elliott, ingrained in all the Baker children the importance of being involved in the community.
By the measure of degrees and titles, Tony Baker is a big success. Words that others use to describe him include joyful, loving, gifted, and genuine. Tony is a warm soul; his success is the results of a combination of hard work and a sense of caring for the people who surround him.
Tony recounts an event that meant a great deal to him. “A few years back I received a call from a young man who had come through my juvenile court. He had pulled his life together, become a professional glassblower, and was about to become a father. He wanted to thank me for giving him a chance and believing in him. He told me I had encouraged him to learn from his lesson and move on, and he thanked me for what I had told him.”
Marguerite, Tony’s early teacher, wisely says, “Tony was perfect for juvenile court; he understands trying to fit into a society in which you are on the edge.”
Many years ago the words bui doi were spat at unfortunate street children, but it was wrong in many ways, and besides, we are all made of dust.
Each person interviewed for this article gives credit to God for Tony’s success. The Baker children are proud of their parents for opening their home to a new family member. Ginnie humbly boasts about how her children made room in their hearts for another sibling. Marguerite, to whom Tony gives boundless credit for his successes, hands her fanfare to God as well. Elliott passed away in 2009; however, the family remembers Dad explaining that he had no idea what compelled him to blurt out, “We’ll take him,” but one thing is for sure: those were exactly the right words, and no one has had an ounce of regret.