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Leonard Baker wasn’t fully prepared to embrace retirement as athletic director at Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf.
But the task of keeping a struggling program afloat, coupled with a change in the school’s leadership helped push the Morganton native towards that path before the start of the 2019-20 school year.
Thus, the 61-year-old Baker, who came to ENCSD in 1993, stepped away from his duties, setting in motion a chain of events that currently has the school without an interscholastic athletic program. A job opening was posted Aug. 22 for a physical education teacher that will also serve as ENCSD’s new athletic director. The closing date was set for Sept. 22.
However, according to Gary Farmer, who serves on the school’s advisory board, that position remains unfilled as ENCSD director Michele Handley continues to search for the ideal candidate. Handley, who arrived from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, began her duties in Wilson in March of last year.
“Part of it’s just some of the struggles we’re having as far as keeping programs going at the school,” Baker said of his decision to retire in a recent telephone interview. “Because our numbers have gotten lower, and it’s a little more difficult. It’s doable and it can happen, but I felt like I was always having to pull rabbits out of the hat and so, it seemed like a pretty good time. I’m older now, and I guess that’s got something to do with it too.”
According to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s 2019-2020 conference list, ENCSD, which opened its doors in 1964, is still listed as an independent member alongside North Carolina School for the Deaf despite not fielding teams.
As a ripple effect, Community Christian School, instead of renewing its lease agreement with ENCSD to play its home basketball games at Barney Williamson Gymnasium, now rotates its games between Sallie B. Howard and the Peace Church gym. It is, at the least, an athletic pause for a school that captured the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-A girls basketball title in 1983 and won three Mason-Dixon boys basketball tournament titles under the late Williamson in 1991, 1992 and 1999. The girls basketball team won the Mason-Dixon event in 1982 and 1988. Most recently, school supporters fought off a closure threat from the state budget in 2011.
Baker, a 1987 graduate of Appalachian State, made the decision to retire in May after evaluating his options.
“I went back and forth with it a lot,” he said. “There were a lot of things that fed into it. With football, I knew I’d miss that and just the direction of the school had changed a lot. I won’t get into that, but it’s just a different direction.”
Baker, a football coach by trade, put that passion to use in December 2011 when he pitched the NCHSAA on the concept of forming a combined eight-player football team with the NCSD. Approval was granted, and the teams played an independent schedule in some form through 2018. But this year, NCSD leadership indicated its desire to form a coed soccer program and discontinue its eight-player affiliation with ENCSD.
That meant no more Bear-Hornets, which took some wind out of Baker’s sails.
“I was the one that came up with the idea to put the two programs together,” Baker recalled. “At the time, we had a director that was in favor of it up in Morganton, and then got out last year. So I think that had a little bit to do with them moving away from playing football and deciding to play co-ed soccer. You’ve got some of the old heads up there that still, they hold onto the ENCSD and NCSD rivalry. And it is a rivalry, but I thought it was kind of neat to play together and have those guys work together for three months out of the year, even though they compete against each other in other things the rest of the year.”
Baker began his ENCSD tenure as a middle school physical education teacher and a junior varsity basketball coach, in addition to his duties as an assistant football coach. He took over the Hornets head football coaching post in 1996 and became interim athletic director upon Farmer’s departure in 2001, a position that soon transitioned to full-time status. Between two ENCSD stints, he spent two years as an assistant football coach at Fike under Kim Brown before serving a year at Beddingfield with Tyrone Johnson.
While serving his mandated six-month hiatus away from the North Carolina system in retirement, Baker volunteered with the CCS eight-player football unit this past year. He isn’t sure what next year will hold from an employment perspective, but welcomes the chance to get back in the game.
“I could kind of see how things were trending,” Baker said. “I think if us and Morganton had continued, we’d continue to have enough. It was always marginal numbers. We never had a whole bunch of kids, but it’s one of those things. I wasn’t disappointed with the last few years as far as the way we played. We had a pretty decent team the last few years and it’s unfortunate we didn’t play this year because I think we’d have a really good team. But that was out of our control, so you don’t worry about the things you can’t do much about.”
Baker indicated that he left his post having prepared volleyball and basketball schedules for the coming year, as well as a plan for how to proceed had ENCSD elected to continue on with athletics.
“I tried to leave them in a good place when I left,” he said.
Farmer said a “big void” will be left in Baker’s absence, calling him a “gentle giant.”
“I think a big thing that we take pride in is that we’ve had a marginal number of kids for a while,” Baker said. “We were pretty much able to keep all the programs going that we’ve had all along.”