No. 57 and 58 of Baker family to attend GCU continue legacy online

Whit and May Baker urged their five sons to graduate to a world far beyond the cotton, farmland and oil fields where they grew up, and the boys certainly did by all going to Grand Canyon College. That’s Charlie, Jake and Sharky in the front row (from left) and Randy (being held by cousin Velmer Hopper), May and Whit, holding Doug, in the back row. (Contributed photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the November issue of GCU Magazine. View the digital version here.

Kaitlyn Shiflet was 30, going through a divorce, with a daughter headed to kindergarten. She worked retail and restaurant jobs just to pay the bills. Something had to change.

She prayed for guidance. And she remembered where she came from.

Her great-great-grandparents moved to Arizona during the Depression. They were farmers and had nothing, she said, before piling into a Model T, harvesting what they picked on the roadsides and finding a new determination that would last generations: It took an education to move ahead.

The legacy of the Baker family lives on through Kaitlyn, the 58th member to enroll for an education at Grand Canyon University, which is getting ready to launch its 75th anniversary celebration year.

That realization took another generation to make it from the Dust Bowl to Camelback Road, where five Baker boys finally could fulfill the dream in the 1950s at Grand Canyon, including Kaitlyn’s grandfather, Randy Baker.

Kaitlyn Shiflet is the latest Baker to attend GCU with daughter Tailyn, 7, watching closely. (Contributed photo)

“I kept thinking, ‘This is where I am supposed to go,’” said Kaitlyn, who started online classes two years ago in elementary education from her home in northern Nevada, where she also works as a paraprofessional in the classroom.

Her grandparents, she continued, were “over the moon excited. It was the legacy of the Bakers!

“Education is something my family was always big on.”

That legacy was born on the ground campus, where Randy Baker and his four brothers, including La Vern “Sharky” Baker, wasted no time. Sharky, a member of the GCU Hall of Fame, arrived in 1954 and became part of the first baseball team, was a residence hall janitor and editor of the student newspaper, leaving enough time to meet his wife, Leona.

“My husband always said, ‘GCU made such a difference in my life.’ He loved and supported it all he could,” Leona said with a catch in her voice.

Sharky died in March at age 96, but she’s still excited about attending basketball games like they always did, along with other members of the Baker clan.

The second generation of Bakers featured members in leadership, including Keith Baker and Robin Baker. Several from the third generation graduated in the 2000s, including Sharky’s four granddaughters.

“We are hoping to have great-grandkids who go to GCU,” Leona said.

She has two grandnieces in GCU classes now – with similar circumstances.

Mandy Young, 47, also is the granddaughter of Randy Baker, studies education online and is a classroom aide while working full time as a single mom. The Sahuarita, Arizona, mother of three is a Copper View Elementary aide and became Baker No. 57 at GCU in the fall of 2020 when she began studying early childhood education.

“I knew that a lot of my Baker family had been there and gotten teaching degrees,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing that there are so many of us and that so many of us enjoy teaching. I think it’s part of our personalities that we are born to be teachers.”

Determination also seems to be in the Baker blood.

Mandy Young, the 57th member of the Baker family to attend GCU, is a classroom aide in Sahuarita, Arizona, studying early childhood education as an online student. (Contributed photo)

Kaitlyn’s father, Ray, was divorced from her mother when she was 4.

“He piled us all in our little van, and we moved to Arizona to be close to family,” Kaitlyn said. “My dad didn’t have an education. When he was done with the Air Force, he worked in restaurants and did odd jobs. We were living in poverty and had a hard life, but I remember it as a good childhood.

“Dad said there were days he couldn’t afford bread or milk. That’s OK, Dad. We’re all alive. We’re all OK.”

But what she remembers now is her father pushing to get his education – first an associate degree, then a bachelor’s. He got a job in information technology, and after Kaitlyn graduated from high school, he went back to college to get his master’s degree at GCU in 2011 while in his 50s.

“My uncle Sharky handed him his diploma,” she said.

Sharky Baker not only loved basketball but GCU baseball games. (Contributed photo)

“I couldn’t be more proud watching him become everything he could be. I get a lot of inspiration from him, knowing what he did as a single parent means a lot to me. I’m proud to say that I am his daughter.”

Kaitlyn also started her quest as a single parent with no education.

“It ended up being the best thing for me as a single mom, and it’s become something I am really enjoying,” she said. “It started out as a necessity, and it turns out it’s something I loved doing.”

While she said that she might “end up working in a copper mine while she finishes her education,” there are a lot of Bakers to lean on when it gets rough.

“Anytime I am struggling in school to understand an assignment, my family will jump in and help me,” she said. “It’s been hard for me, going from minimum wage jobs to minimum wage jobs for years, but I’m looking forward to being able to take care of my daughter without fear or stress.”

Baker No. 58 is determined to show daughter Tailyn, 7, that education is as important now as when the family came to that realization driving a Model T to Arizona. Helping others also achieve that dream in the classroom will bring it full circle.

***

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(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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