Once upon a time, before news traveled at break-neck speed to our very smart phones and our Cable TV networks, we actually waited for it. We had no choice. When “the news” came on at teatime, it was serious business, and we paid attention. It wasn’t about a new animal born at the zoo or a wardrobe malfunction of someone famous. When UTV broadcaster, Brian Baird, came into our living rooms with poker-faced authority to tell us something new, we took it as gospel.
As my brother says, “You could read nothing in that face. It was all in the voice. The face, if it told you anything, told you this: listen to what I’ve found out since I was talking to you last. This is very important, and will take only three minutes.” There was no shuffling of papers, no footerin’ with a pen – there was just the news.
Amid the recent flurry of texts and Tweets about the death of our Seamus Heaney, I wondered how the late Brian Baird would have broken the news to us. Would he have kept his cool or would he have lost what veteran American anchorman, Walter Kronkite, described as the “running battle” between his emotions and his news sense when he had to announce on-air the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I suspect the latter.
I first met Brian Baird in the early 1980s. I was a student at Stranmillis College, and I was late for a class. On that day, it was a Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce seminar. I opened the door to the sound of a familiar voice coming from the front of a classroom. There he was, sitting behind a desk, reciting poetry with the same gentle gravitas he also reserved for reading the news. Out from the television screen in the corner of our living room on the Dublin Road, Mr Baird was larger than life, and over the course of that year, he changed my life as only the best teacher can.
For starters, he introduced me to our poet, Seamus Heaney. “Professionally unfussed” like Heaney’s Diviner, Mr. Baird led us in and out of those poems, wondering always and wandering through rural places and practices I knew well, but had until then taken for granted. I felt a new pride, almost boasting that I belonged to Heaney’s places – Castledawson, The Hillhead, The Lough shore, The Broagh. Indeed, I found a new respect for the craft of certain men who peopled those parts and Heaney’s poems – The Thatcher, the blacksmith at The Forge, The Diviner, men like daddy who I once observed divine water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the stick in the shape of a wishbone, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting through a green hazel its secret stations.”
Mind you, my newfound appreciation for the ways of life in the townlands of rural Derry did not make me more punctual to class or timely with submission of homework. Mr. Baird always called me “the late Miss Watterson” which, if truth be told, only encouraged my tardiness. I liked getting his attention, and I saved all my hand-written papers in a folder, because I loved his red-ink comments. I used to imagine him reading them on the six o’clock news: “A very sound survey, which I was pleased, at last, to receive. I had had oral evidence of its existence.” Or, “This was received very late, so I can’t guarantee this mark.” (I got the mark anyway).
In April 1991, I wrote to Mr. Baird from Phoenix. I wanted to thank him (because all good teachers should be thanked) and to ask if he would share with me his course outline and a reading list for an Irish Fiction course I was scheduled to teach. He obliged, and I was delighted to find recently his elegant hand-written letter folded between the pages of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.
Seven years after I received that letter, Mr. Baird died. He was 69, and it was cancer that killed him. Bloody cancer. There’s no getting away from it, is there? I wish I had made the time to thank him properly for the life-long gift of Heaney’s poetry. There has not been a day of my adult life that I have not been grateful for it.
When Mr. Baird died, then manager of UTV, Desmond Smyth, described him perfectly:
To a TV generation Brain Baird was the voice and the face of UTV news. He was a totally professional broadcaster and a charming work colleague with not an ounce of ego about him.
Like Heaney’s men – not an ounce of ego.
Out of the blue, one morning in April 2013, I opened my email to find a note from his son, Patric. In his travels, he had found my blog and was pleased to read there about the impact of his father on yet another former student. It turns out I am part of a large and global fan-club. Patric told me his dad had taught English and coached rugby in Malaysia in the 1950s and early 1960s. On a trip there to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, Patric met some of his father’s former pupils, now old men in their seventies who recalled with gratitude how their teacher had helped shape their appreciation of literature and the English language.
It was a long struggle with a rare form of leukemia that killed my favorite teacher, and Patric says he remained positive throughout the illness. Of course he did.
Sadly, Mr. Baird did not live to see his son become a journalist, nor would he ever know the full extent of his influence as a teacher and a lover of poetry. Even though I know he is the man who kept on reading the news in spite of a fly landing on his lip, I have to believe that his inscrutable poker face would break into a smile at the thought of me, at fifty, “crediting marvels” myself, and reciting Heaney at an upcoming tribute to the poet in Phoenix.
Thank you, Mr. Baird.