Marian Benson Bach de Baker left this world at dawn, May 7. The hour seemed apt; during her working life, as founder and director of her two schools, Country Day and MarianBakerSchool, she had always been an early riser.
Marian was born Jan. 17, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. Her first teaching experience began at age 19. For $90 a month, she taught grades five to eight, with 50 children in one room and no central heating or indoor plumbing. But it was the Great Depression, and she felt lucky to have a job.
She continued teaching until 1948, when she married Robert Baker and moved to Kansas. The couple became very active in the civil-rights movement, participating in sit-ins and running campaigns to force the YMCA and other organizations to become integrated.
The Bakers also were peace activists. After their three children were born, they lived on Robert’s family farm.
In 1961, in protest against nuclear bomb testing and against the military-industrial complex in the United States, Marian and Robert moved to Costa Rica, choosing this country because it did not have an army and boasted more teachers than policemen.
Marian founded CountryDay School in 1963 in a large house in Sabanilla, northeast of San José, with 15 children besides her own three, in grades one through eight. The school quickly grew – to 90 students by the beginning of the second year – and moved to an old house across from MorazánPark in San José. Not long after, as grades nine to 12 were needed, a second building was added, the former San José Inn near BolívarPark.
Marian was adept at hiring, training and overseeing teachers, and whenever she lacked a teacher, she taught the course herself.
Her philosophy of education was simple: Keep classes small, and allow each student to progress at his or her own pace in each subject.
A typical student, for example, might be simultaneously taking seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math. Country Day filled a need for English-speaking families with temporary residence in Costa Rica. Spanish was taught as a required subject and students were grouped according to their previous knowledge of the language.
Marian had a great love of music and drama, and these always formed an important part of the curriculum. She directed plays with the same expertise, gusto and energy she put into directing her schools.
Country Day soon had to add branch schools, first in the southeastern district of Zapote and later in the western suburb of Escazú. Robert had to take a hiatus from his first love, farming, to take care of the business end of the schools.
After their three children graduated, the Bakers sold Country Day in 1973 (TT, Sept. 20, 1974). The new owners moved the school to its present location in Escazú, where it continues to flourish as a college prep school with a fine academic reputation.
There followed 10 years of “retirement,” during which Marian taught piano lessons, wrote many stories and books – one of which, “Every Mother’s Goose,” the story of Country Day School’s beginnings, was published – and took care of her husband, who had been ill and was now busy planting apple orchards and many other kinds of trees.
In 1983, in response to a plea from many teachers who had worked for her before, Marian came out of retirement to start the MarianBakerSchool in San Ramón de Tres Ríos, east of San José. She ran this school, with the help of Robert and business partner Bonnie Heigold, until age 80, when the Bakers sold their interest – and the land with the school buildings Robert had built – to Bonnie and to Linda Niehaus.
After this second retirement, the still energetic octogenarians traveled each spring to Lincoln, Kansas, where Robert harvested his winter wheat and planted a new crop before leaving in the fall.
Marian and Bob spent the winters of 1998-99 and 1999-2000 with daughter Ann in Canada, then chose to settle down in their home in San Ramón de Tres Ríos, helped by wonderful caregivers Miriam López and Jorge Luis Zamora.All three of their children visited frequently. Robert died at home in 2002 at age 90. Marian had one final, long trip to France, to spend the summer of 2006 with daughter Marynell. In 2007 Marynell brought Marian to her home near La Cruz, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where she remained until her death.
Marian will be deeply missed by son Alan and daughters Ann and Marynell, and their families, including grandchildren Heidi, Ivan, Michelle, Erica, Dennis, Julianna and Andrey, and great-grandchildren Kaya, Nicolas and Dylan. She will be remembered and missed by many former students, teachers, neighbors and friends.
Marian Baker: A Personal Remembrance
Her favorite book was “Merchants of Death,” a history of the armaments industry written in the 1930s. Disagreeing with the military program in the United States, teacher Marian Baker and her family left their native home in the U.S. Midwest in 1961, packed up their most essential belongings and drove to Costa Rica, with no idea of what lay ahead.
My neighbors from the time I was 9, the Baker children were important in my life, but far more of an influence was Marian Baker. Her values, always unequivocally expressed, helped me to become an ethical and idealistic person. The songs she taught in her school, such as “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’” from “Porgy and Bess” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha,” gave me an important foundation in my personal growth and search for truth throughout childhood and adolescence.
A teacher by profession, Marian was one of those fabled one-room-schoolhouse schoolmarms in her native Nebraska. At the age of 50, she started her first school, Country Day, responding to an inner feeling that the community needed a caring, individualized kind of education. She encouraged us to read quality literature, keep personal diaries, see exciting plays, enjoy folk dancing and explore the relevance of history in our lives, and she was always a model of right action and of fearlessly expressing one’s views.
In recent years, I was fortunate to work for Marian, who was legally blind, reading aloud such treasures as “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,”Will Durant’s “The Age of Faith,” Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, and her daughter Ann’s beautifully written daily letters from Canada.
At 92, she was still sharp, always questioning points in our reading or clarifying an idea in her quietly incisive way, although I often had to remind her what she had just said or who I was.
But best were her stories. She confided how scared she was when she and her husband, Bob, started CountryDay School in 1963. What got her through the tremendous anxiety was waking up at 4 a.m., fixing herself toast and a cup of tea, and reading Agatha Christie for 15 minutes before tackling her lesson planning, evaluating, administrative plans and the myriad details that awaited resolution at school and in her household of five children, three of her own and two boarders.
“One day at a time,” she recalled. “I never dreamed it would fly.”
But fly it did, becoming, under her direction, one of the most personalized and unique educational endeavors for English-speaking children in Costa Rica.
She gave Country Day the strong foundation for its present status as one of the best academic preparatory schools in the country.
The school flourished under her leadership for a decade; however, the workload became overwhelming and she decided to sell it in 1973.
Later, in 1984, she started the MarianBakerSchool, which, now under other leadership, preserves the personalized, small-class learning environment that was her original vision.
I feel grateful to have worked as Marian’s companion for many reasons, but it is especially rewarding to have reconnected with so important a contributor to my early years. She touched each of her students in a different way, always awakening in them what was special and needed to flourish.
Marian shall be remembered in our community for her outstanding contribution to education and human values.