Salvation Army volunteer Albert Baker is a wave maker in an otherwise calm sea of bureaucrats assigned to work at the flood disaster assistance center here.
His assignment marked the first trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains for Baker, who recently retired after 24 years as a teacher in St. Petersburg, Fla., and it was one that neither he nor his co-workers will soon forget.
In addition to issuing vouchers for food at the Kroger store and furniture at a Salvation Army thrift store in Roanoke, Baker cajoled merchants into supplying daily rations of doughnuts, apples, juice and coffee to workers and victims ("You wouldn't want me to tell the newspapers you didn't give," he told one reluctant businessman). When his co-workers complained about the selection, he bought snacks with his own money.
He played his trumpet at area malls, spoke to high school Spanish classes about his experience as a missionary in Mexico, organized dinners among the volunteers, and filled the hours of waiting by telling jokes gathered over nearly a quarter-century of teaching elementary school children.
He passed out Bibles until someone complained, and teased the Red Cross worker stationed next to him about that organization's strict rules that require a home visit to verify requests for goods, while Baker was free to make on-the-spot awards.
"What if somone does get two mattresses?" he said.
While working at another center, at New Castle in adjoining Craig County, Baker overheard a sorrowful mother of seven say her retarded 10-year-old son cried over the loss of their television set, which washed down the James River in the Nov. 4 flood. Although "no one passes out TVs," Baker said, he persuaded his "captain" in Roanoke to come up with $100 for a portable.
The next day, he handed the TV to a grateful woman who hugged, kissed and "God blessed" him, only to learn moments later that it was not the woman he had overheard.
After the tale circulated among the disaster centers in the area, the workers chipped in to buy another set. On Monday, en route to the airport and his return to Florida, Baker plans to personally deliver the set. "This time," he said, "I'm going to see the child."