Three views from underneath GCU’s family tree
(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the March 2016 issue of GCU Today Magazine. To view the e-version of the entire magazine, click here.)
By Janie Magruder
GCU Today Magazine
One of the things Grand Canyon University does best is replicate the feeling of belonging, from freshmen moving onto campus during Welcome Week to community members greeted at its many events. They are part of GCU’s family, and the purple carpet is always rolled out.
There also are many individuals whose families literally are part of GCU because fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and grandchildren have attended school here. For some, the roots of their GCU family trees run three generations deep. Other families are just getting started on their Lopes legacies.
Here are three strong branches:
May Baker would be proud. Although she never got past the third grade, she stressed to her five sons that the “Promised Land” would be found in books, not in acres of cotton, farmland and oil fields, where her husband, Whit, toiled all his life. “She didn’t insist we go to college,” said eldest son La Vern “Sharky” Baker, “but she insisted we go as far as we could in life.”
They did, by enrolling at Grand Canyon. Jesse “Jake” Baker got the ball rolling in 1952 (English), followed by Sharky (physical education) and Charles “Charley” Baker (physical education) in 1953, by Randall “Randy” Baker who attended Grand Canyon in 1954-55 and by Douglas “Doug” Baker (physical education) in 1955.
Three of the brothers, Sharky, Charley and Jake, played on the baseball team together, and they, along with Doug, all met their wives at school. Sharky’s team was 0-13 (“We didn’t scare anybody,” he joked), but Doug played on Grand Canyon’s undefeated basketball team in 1958-59.
After they left school, the brothers excelled in their careers in education, athletics, business and the ministry. And then their children started coming to school in droves.
Sharky, 89, and his wife, Leona, are regular visitors to campus who religiously attend and support alumni, sporting and other events. Leona also was instrumental in the growth of the GCU Guild and its wildly popular “Fuel for Finals” — involving 10,000 cookies handed out to students twice a year during finals.
“I get goosebumps every time I come here because this is where life began,” Sharky said. The second and third generations of Bakers and their extended family members added greatly to the branches of their Grand Canyon family tree. Members include Keith Baker, Doug’s son, a longtime GCU athletics staff member, and Dr. Robin Baker, a former senior vice president of GCU and current president of George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. The most recent family graduate, Jenna Chittenden, Sharky’s granddaughter, earned a BSN from the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions in 2014 and is employed by Banner Health.
All told, through seven decades, the Baker legacy stands at 53 graduates and former students. Look for a fourth generation of Bakers in about 15 years.
Eighteen members of the Barnes/Hawkins/Forrest clan have graduated from or attended Grand Canyon, starting with Barbara (Hawkins) Barnes, John Barnes and Nelson Forrest, who enrolled in 1950 at the Prescott, Ariz., campus. John’s brother Paul arrived in 1951, met and eventually married Barbara.
Barbara’s brother, S. Fred Hawkins, enrolled in 1952 and was followed by Paul’s sisters Dottie (Barnes) Forrest and Grace Barnes, various cousins and their spouses.
The next generation brought Nelson and Dottie’s sons, Truett, Bayard, an All-American basketball player, and Jon Forrest, as well as Barbara and Paul’s children, Sherbonne’ Barnes-Anderson, Stephen Barnes and Paula Barnes. Generation three included Bayard, his wife, Peggy, and their children, Stephanie, Adam and Mandy Forrest.
Paul worked at Grand Canyon from 1971-82, developing the University’s alumni program and building its ties to the business community. Following his career at Grand Canyon, Paul was vice president of development at John C. Lincoln Hospital and CEO at St. Mary’s Food Bank.
When he looks at his GCU family tree, Paul sees “a good bunch of kids” who made significant contributions in a number of fields, from the ministry and education to music and business.
“It’s a heritage on both sides — it’s a heritage in the school and also in the family,” said Paul, 82, who lives with his wife, Barbara, 84, in Sun City.
Their son, Stephen, flourished at Grand Canyon, a much smaller school at that time than was his high school, McClintock, in Tempe.
“I was lost in high school, struggling to find my identity,” said Barnes, the longtime chief investment officer and chief compliance officer at Barnes Investment Advisory in Phoenix.
“The cool thing about Canyon is I did find my identity there, and the relationships I made there, 30-plus years later, have been the most meaningful in my life,” he said.
Stephen’s father, mother and two sisters graduated from GCU, and Stephen and his wife, Kathie, would have liked for their daughter to be a Lope, too. Stephanie chose Pepperdine University, and he remembers thinking during their 2009 tour of the Malibu, Calif., campus that it was the school his alma mater should have been more like when he was here.
“And that’s exactly what’s happened now,” said Stephen, a member of the 2014 Alumni Hall of Fame. “It is now what it should have been then: the Pepperdine of the Desert.”
Len Keso met his future wife, Michelle, during freshman orientation week at Grand Canyon College in 1983. The couple dated for two years, strolling around campus, playing Frisbee across its wide open spaces and praying together by the old Fleming Library fountain.
In 1986, they hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon as part of an “Arizona Outdoors” class taught by Dr. David Brazell. With the moon glistening on the Colorado River and several deer grazing nearby, Len proposed. Michelle accepted.
They married as GCU seniors and graduated in 1987. Michelle became a teacher and Len started work in communications for Maricopa County. They were blessed with two children, Nathan, born in 1993, and Larae, in 1997.
“We would take Nathan to baseball games when he was 5, bring our gloves and throw the ball and make it an outing,” said Len, 51. “We would go to plays in Ethington. He grew up coming here a lot, and when he was a young boy he got it in his heart that this is where he wanted to go.
“We didn’t want to just say, ‘This is where you’re going.’ We wanted God to lead us to the right place for him. But Nathan’s heart was always Grand Canyon.”
Nathan graduated with a sports management degree in April 2015 and recently landed a job at Penn Racquet Sports in Phoenix.
Larae and her parents began looking at colleges the year before.
“We didn’t want her to feel like she had to go to Grand Canyon because everyone else did,” said Michelle, 50. “Our heart is for our children to be led by the Lord, not by us. He knows better than we do.”
Larae decided to become a Lope and is majoring in educational studies.
“We’re now in our fifth consecutive year of spending time on campus and have not only been able to reflect back on our story when we visit, but we have enjoyed watching our children’s stories unfold as well,” Len said.
GCU is precious to the Phoenix couple because “it’s where God wrote the beginning of our story,” Michelle said. “And I believe there could be a Keso legacy one day.”
There already is.