She walked and sat with kings and queens in Europe. She chatted confidentially with Queen Louise of Sweden, who kept her in conversation beyond the time scheduled for Sally's visit. The Queen of Holland and Sally Baker from Pikeville, Kentucky shared friendship and talk as they dipped hot chocolate from a huge steaming kettle for the refugee children in a camp housing 7,500 people. They dipped the chocolate and cut black bread for the children.
In Athens Sally Baker viewed the spot on Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul had once preached, as he became the leading spokesman for Christianity. In London she appeared on the "Women's Hour" program of the British Broadcasting Company and each day afterward received letters welcoming her to England. In England she met with the Girl Guides organization and presented the group a doll sent them by the Girl Scouts in Pikeville.
As Queen of America in 1950, Sally Baker made a seven-weeks' tour of Europe under the Economic Cooperation Administration and at the invitation of many Marshall Plan countries, who were trying to get back on their feet after World War II. The ECA felt she would be an effective, down-to-earth link in reporting back to America European attempts at recovery.
Queen Sally's activity on the European trip included inspecting European progress under the Marshall Plan visiting hospitals, health projects, child welfare projects and children's groups and meeting women's groups comparable to the women's clubs in America as she learned of their volunteer efforts in social community contributions.
In all this activity and travel Pikeville's Sally Baker, despite the high honors and responsibility heaped upon her, remained her own natural self, doing her duty and making friends everywhere. A friend remarked, "She conquered the heart of everyone she met."
Sally Nolan Baker, conquering hearts because of her love and service to humanity, had made a victorious conquest in winning the title of Queen of America over 23 million club women in America. The contest started October 26, 1949 when 450 radio station managers, 450 sales managers and hundreds of others listened to the Mutual Broadcasting System outlining a plan to find "the one American majesty."
By the next week over 50,000 Women Club chapters in America had been contacted and million of club women were searching for the woman worthy of the title. The action culminated in 48-year-old Sally Baker from Pikeville being chosen as Queen of America in the national contest conducted by the Mutual Broadcasting System's "Queen for a Day" radio program.
Between radio and TV, the "Queen for a Day" show ran for nearly 20 years, although widely criticized as an exploitation of human misery, wrapped in commercial plugs. "Queen For A Day" was emceed by Jack Bailey. Bailey interviewed four women on each show and whoever was in the worst shape - assessed by the audience "applause meter" - was crowned Queen. TV audiences cried their eyes out, morbidly delighted to find there were people worse off than they were.
By contrast, the "Queen of America" contest sought to find and reward not the most destitute woman, but the most charitable. After three months of plans and searching by the MBS Sally Baker, "a modest, registered nurse, social welfare worker, housewife and mother from Pikeville, Kentucky" was chosen as "a club woman with 25 years of outstanding humanitarian service in eastern Kentucky." Jack Bailey was on hand to crown her and Myrna Loy, Hollywood film actress and adviser to the United States delegation to UNESCO presented her with an honorary membership in the "American Association for the United Nations."
Among the prizes awarded to the Queen of America were:
For Queen Sally's club, the Women's Society of Christian Service, there was:
Sally Nolan Baker, the daughter of Charlie Lee Nolan and Susie McCullough Nolan, was born February 17, 1901 in Milledgevile, Georgia. She was one of eight children. Other brothers and sisters were Howard Ernest (my father), Arthur, Leonard ("Chip"), Mattie Lou ("Pat"), Dovie Lee, all deceased. Two other siblings are still living, Essie May ("Mary") who is 84 and Ruby, 94.
When Sally was a small girl the family moved to a big farmhouse near Baxley, Georgia where they grew cotton, peanuts, sugar cane, and other crops. Sally attended grade school at Baxley. When the minister, Rev. Fane, came to visit, he said young Sally should attend the high school four or five miles away. "She can stay with my family," offered Rev. Fane. "I will pay her board in light-wood pine," said Mr. Nolan.
"So all we children helped our father with the wood," Sally remembered. "We measured the fireplace and stove to get the correct length of the wood before cutting it with the crosscut saw."
As Sally's high school education ended, Sally Patterson, the superintendent of nurses of Hazelhurst, Georgia, encouraged her to become a nurse. At 17 the girl enrolled in a nursing school, a new program needed to treat typhoid epidemics in the swampland.
"I wore long braided hair tied with a ribbon, and there were eight or ten other students in the school," Sally recalled this milestone in her life.
Alice Hall, the wife of Dr. John Hall, who ran the nursing school, wrote in her book Gone With the Ebbing Tide: "One of the young nurses was Sally Nolan, a sweet, bright girl with high ideals and a desire to accomplish good in the noble profession she had chosen ... I had the pleasure of making the first uniform, apron, and caps she wore and always thought she looked so pretty in her little blue and white striped uniforms and big white apron as she rushed around seeing patients, always with a word of cheer."
When Dr. Hall's health failed the school had to close, and Sally finished her training at Cordele, Georgia. She worked in the cotton fields to earn the necessary fifty dollars to enter the Cordele Nursing School, five miles from Plains, Georgia. On graduation she secured a job in the chief surgeon's office at $75 a month.
"While working there I saw a catalog advertising a call for nurses at the Consolidated Coal Company in Jenkins, Kentucky. The job paid $150 a month! So I answered the call and came to Kentucky in 1923," Sally reported.
She had a host of memories to relate when she was a nurse at the Jenkins Hospital and a camp nurse at Dunham for the Consolidation Coal Company. She recalled nursing Mattie, the wife of Bad John Wright.
"Mattie fell and broke her hip," said Sally. "She lay in a homemade bed nailed to the wall. I rode a horse to her house, since we all rode horseback in those days."
Pansy Brown Polly was the first woman that Sally met and became acquainted with when she came to Kentucky. Sally would be too modest to disclose her dedicated service but Mrs. Polly wrote this in her book, God, Home and Country of the Eastern Kentucky Highlands: "Sally went far beyond her duty. She could always find a way out. Once she and another nurse went to get a woman and bring her to the hospital. When Sally walked down a hill to the home she found the woman alone and unable to climb the hill to the car. Feeling there was no time to waste, she put the woman on her back and carried her up the hill piggyback. The nurse in the car saw her coming and took their picture."
On duty at the Jenkins Hospital Sally Nolan cared for a patient who changed her life thereafter. One day the young, blue-eyed, auburn-haired Sally was red-haired Floyd Baker enter with a ruptured appendix. He was from East St. Louis, Illinois and had come to work on the railroad at Jenkins. As his nurse, Sally cared for him. The two fell in love and were married in March 1924 late one Sunday afternoon in the sun parlor of the hospital after the minister finished milking his cows.
In 1924 the new Pikeville Methodist Hospital was preparing to open, and Dr. Osborne asked Sally to come there for nursing duty. So Floyd and Sally moved to Pikeville. "In those early days people were scared of the hospital," she remembered. "There were 10 or 12 of us nurses at first. We would go by horseback or sled out in the country and up the hollows to aid the sick and tell them how the hospital could help. Once we visited a little deformed girl. And then there was the little sick boy who tried to read the newspapers on the wall."
One child was badly burned and would have died if Sally had not ridden hurriedly on horseback to the mountain cabin and taken the girl to the hospital. Another girl of 11, her parents dead and her brother a bootlegger, was sent to a notorious hotel to earn her living by prostitution. Sally rescued the child and raised her as her own. Today, the girl is happily married and, like many others Sally has taken in, calls her "mother."
Florence Varney, who had a tumor weighing 111 pounds taken from her. After the operation Mrs. Varney weighed only 97 pounds and lived to be 85! "Florence lived in a hollow up Mouthcard," said Sally. "We brought her in a sled to Elkhorn, boated her across the river, and took the train to Pikeville. Dr. Paul Gronnerud, as chief surgeon, did the surgery, but all the doctors on the staff were present. Watching such an operation was a chance in a lifetime, and no doctor intended to miss it."
Becoming chief nurse of the hospital, Sally did everything, from delivering babies to nursing the patients, cleaning the toilets, working in the kitchen, and serving as a laboratory technician.
During the war years with only three registered nurses at Pikeville Methodist Hospital, Sally worked 17 or 18 hours a day, yet she made time somehow to operate a ham radio and listen to German broadcasts on the American prisoners. She then telephoned their homes to give the wives and mothers news of the missing boys. Each Christmas thereafter, her mail was flooded with hundreds of cards and letters from the ex-G.I.'s and their families.
In the 1957 flood, as a member of the board of directors of the County Red Cross, Sally stayed busy running here and there organizing the distribution of food, water, milk and clothing. Although her home and family business, the Baker Funeral Home had been flooded with several feet of mud, she attended to the needs of others and had six families sheltered upstairs at her place.
In addition to being a nurse and volunteering for the Red Cross, Sally was a member of the Eastern Star and the Pikeville Woman's Club. She was a mother and housekeeper and helped her husband run the Baker Funeral Home. After his railroad work, Floyd Baker had attended the Cincinnati School of Embalming. He and Lloyd Preston established the Baker and Preston Funeral Home in Pikeville in 1945. Freddy Baker, the son of Floyd and Sally, was born in 1935. He first meant to be a doctor, but then went into the family business with his father. Floyd Baker died on November 27, 1961, and Freddy and Sally carried on the business after his death.
After earning the "Queen of America" title for her outstanding humanitarian service, Sally took her European trip. When she returned to Pikeville, 5,200 people stood in the rain to welcome her home. (The population of Pikeville then was only 5,000.) Four thousand people crowded into the new Pikeville High School gymnasium to attend a second coronation and she was given the key to the city. January 9, 1950 was proclaimed "Sally Baker Day" and a legal holiday throughout Eastern Kentucky. The next Wednesday Sally appeared before the Senate and House of Representatives in Frankfort and January 17 was declared "Queen of America Day" in her honor.
In February, 1968, Sally Baker retired after 45 years in the nursing profession. Mayor William C. Hambley of Pikeville proclaimed February 18, 1968 as "Sally Baker Day."
Despite these many honors, Sally remained the same down-to-earth, natural, unassuming person she always was. Even in her 80's, her fingers itched to be hemming a skirt for someone, altering a dress, making a pot of soup, or taking somebody's blood pressure. She never wished to take credit for anything she did or achieved and preferred to talk about the many nurses and others who helped at the hospital, about those who helped Eastern Kentucky grow and develop. "They deserve credit far more than I," she said.
Sally Nolan Baker, America's only proclaimed "Queen" died on May 18, 1987 at the age of 86.
Biography adapted from "Mountain Roots" by Alice J. Kinder
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