By, Randy Yamanaka
~ Marcia Barton Prize Winner ~
December 5, 2017
Completed December 29, 2017
“Guardian Angel” by Karen J. Collins, special reporter to the Times.
Forrest Baker spent 41 years in prison for murder. Last October, he walked out a free man. Forrest remembers that it was raining that day.
“I always thought it would be sunny when I got out,” he said. “But I guess God didn’t see it that way.”
He’d already been through eleven parole boards, but each time he failed.
“I’d like to say that I never gave up hope. But the fact is, I did. You can’t lose eleven straight battles and expect anything to change for the twelfth,” he said. To complicate matters, the man he killed in 1973 was a lawyer.
Forrest faced the usual cast of enemies in his twelfth parole hearing: dozens of attorneys fighting against his release, but this time he had one friend. And it was a friend Forrest never knew existed. Jacob Harrington wrote a legal brief documenting the abuse of justice Forrest had experienced. It was shocking to the audience at the parole board because Jacob Harrington was one of them: an attorney, recently retired a year previously. He stood as the solitary witness against a wave of angry colleagues. Baker’s victim was Timothy Smoll, who was employed by the most prestigious law firm in Sioux Falls: Duncan, Cleveland and Moore, PLLC. They never let him forget it was one of them that he killed. There were lawyers from all over the state who stood against Forrest Baker at his parole hearings. It was said that even his own public defenders put forth minimalist efforts in behalf of their client, so not to aggravate firms they would someday like to work for.
“What I did was wrong,” says Forrest, now 74 years old, sitting by the window feeling the afternoon sunlight on his face. “I didn’t mean to kill anyone. I was an addict and I admit I was robbing him. But he tried to grab the gun from my hand and it went off. Honest to God, the gun wasn’t even supposed to be loaded. I only used it to scare people. It was an automatic and the magazine was empty. But there was a bullet in the chamber I didn’t know about. I wouldn’t ever shoot anyone deliberately. I realize I’m responsible for my actions, even when they happened forty-one years ago. But believe me, when that gun went off, it surprised me more than anyone.”
Forrest needed a walker just to leave prison last year. Both of his hips had degenerated to the point every step was painful. But since his release, he’s had both hips replaced and he can walk pain-free.
“I didn’t know he was a lawyer when I robbed him. He was just a man with bread to me then,” says Forrest, with regret etched in his expression. “He was stumbling around in the dark after he came out of a bar. I mean, I killed a man and it doesn’t matter what his occupation was. But the fact is the judge in my trial had once worked in the very law firm that the victim worked in. That didn’t come out until after I was sentenced to life. I wanted to claim a biased prosecution but no lawyer would even talk to me. Over the years, I watched guys all around me who’d done far worse than me get out in as little as eight years.”
Forrest was described by virtually every guard as a model prisoner. He attended church services regularly and worked in the kitchen up until five years ago when his health finally curtailed him from working. He spent all his free time in the prison library reading.
“I love westerns,” he admits. “I didn’t read anything else. I wasn’t the jailhouse lawyer who studied law. I think it was westerns that kept me alive in prison. They kept me going, day after day.”
So who is Baker’s guardian angel? Who helped Forrest secure his freedom? Here’s where Forrest’s story takes an astonishing turn. Jacob Harrington is not only a retired attorney, he had worked with Timothy Smoll and was his best friend when he was murdered.
Harrington is tall and distinguished, 71 years old, and from a long lineage of powerful attorneys. He still has the shoulders that made him a standout Ivy League football player. He is a widower whose wife Pam died four years ago from pancreatic cancer. He has a son who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. Harrington was a standout attorney who was given the firm’s most prominent cases. Today, Harrington is very comfortable financially and lives in a sprawling estate overlooking Spring Creek Canyon.
“I think about moving sometimes,” Harrington confides. “This house is way too big. But there are so many memories here.” He speaks slowly, even sadly. His voice hardly seems the same as the one which once argued cases defiantly before the Supreme Court.
There are at least a hundred questions churning through my mind that I want to ask and I’m afraid they will all spill out at the same time so I don’t ask any of them. And so I wait patiently. He and I walk down to the stables and he gives his favorite horse a carrot. Her name is Diamond Girl. However, even standing out there on a freezing Dakota day, the last thing Harrington resembles is the Marlboro Man. His face is refined, almost elegant.
“I like having him out here in the house,” he says of Baker. “He’s smart. The judge wouldn’t release him unless he had a safe place to live. I thought I would rent him a small apartment in town. But in the meantime, I moved him out here and I decided this would be the best place for him.”
This seems surreal to me. The man standing before me is letting the killer of his best friend live in his house. Finally, I have to ask a question. I ask how he could abandon his own profession.
“I didn’t abandon them; they abandoned me. They forgot that the law is for all people. They let their personal feelings cloud their judgment, and they became bullies just because they wanted to be. The law is for everyone. Timothy Smoll knew that. I believe this is what Tim would want. Forrest served over four decades in prison and being released was an integral piece of his sentence. Now, every single day he’s forced to look out at the world and see the life he missed because of his actions. And if you ask me, he’s paid his debt to society. And forty-one years is a big debt.”
I ask him what he says to his former colleagues who argue that Baker doesn’t deserve to walk free because Timothy Smoll will never be able to.
“The two wrongs argument? I tell them that there is no sentence that can ever bring Tim back to life, so it’s rather irrelevant. How long? How long do we have to be angry? When does forgiveness and humanity return to us? This isn’t a legal question; it’s a moral one.”
Jacob and I return back to the house. I’m glad because I think my toes feel frostbitten. We sit down by the monstrous fireplace. Forrest brings me a mug of hot chocolate and joins us, and we sit in a semi-circle.
Forrest said that at first, he was scared to leave prison. “It was the only life I knew,” he tacitly admits. “I thought I might fail and be sent back. I remember seeing this house, and suddenly wishing I could be back in jail. I was terrified on my first night here because I was sure this was a revenge plot and Jake was going to kill me. I locked the door and didn’t sleep much that night.”
“I am very fortunate,” says Forrest. “Jake has made me welcome in his house. I don’t deserve this, and I never expected it. He got me medical coverage and helped me get my hip replacements. I couldn’t walk for five years. Now I’m better. I have nice clothes too. He’s helped me with the transition to freedom. Hell, he’s given me freedom.”
I notice a stern look from Jacob. “Sorry,” says Forrest. “One thing Jake insists on is no swearing. In prison, every other word was motherf-ing this and motherf-ing that. I had to quit smoking too. That was hard. We smoked a lot in prison. But I can drink now. We sit down and talk about books twice a week and have a glass of wine. Sometimes we see a movie, or even a live show. I’ve gotten to really enjoy real theatre. I wish the guys back in the pen could see me now,” he says.
They will, Forrest. They will.
-Karen J. Collins/Photos: Raymond Stark
They never forgave me when I argued for Forrest’s release. I knew they wouldn’t. Law is still a male-dominated and archaic profession. They call themselves “traditional,” but I call them prehistoric. Lawyers are basically Neanderthals in European cars. Appearance is everything to them. Of course, who am I to be critical? For 43 years, not only was I one of them, I led the charge. It wasn’t until I retired that I could see the strain I was under; always having to perform for my peers. When I stepped outside the profession, only then could I see the box we had all put ourselves in. We weren’t the warriors for justice that we pretended to be. We were just a bunch of narrow minded middle aged white men trying to look good for each other. We were intellectual parasites where only the strongest survived, and the rest became public defenders.
What I couldn’t tell the journalist is that I never intended for Forrest to live in my house. Actually, the thought of a prisoner living here rather disgusted me. I was sure he’d have everything from skin abscesses to pubic lice. I was just going to have him stay out in the guest house until I could rent him an inexpensive studio apartment. After all, the judge told me that I would be responsible for him and wouldn’t release him until he had housing. But once Forrest had lived with me for a week, and a doctor had confirmed that he didn’t have any skin diseases, I decided to let him stay for two months on a trial basis. I even moved him into the main house. That was almost four years ago.
I remember his first day here. I fully expected him to look at me and say: “Aren’t you scared I’m going to murder you in your sleep?” But he didn’t. Instead, he was like a lost child. He asked me permission to do everything, even go to the bathroom. Finally I had to sit him down and tell him that he wasn’t in prison anymore. There weren’t any guards here. He was free to walk around as he wished, go into the refrigerator for food whenever he wanted, or watch TV without asking. I even had to tell him to quit calling me Mr. Harrington. He just stared at me and cried. I felt bad for the man. He needed a walker to get around then. He seemed like just a fraction of a person. It was then that I decided to get him a hip replacement so he could at least get around with a cane. Then I decided to get him two because, well, even though I’m no saint, I just wanted to see the guy be able to walk like a free man. After all, he’d waited four decades to do so.
To my surprise, Forrest acclimated quite well to his new environment. He was far smarter than I’d anticipated. I credit this to the incessant reading he did in prison, even if it was all westerns. Of course, I had to change his literature. This was the one time that he actually stood up to me. I told him he would only read the classics from now on, and he said he would read classics if I would read westerns. I was appalled. I almost sent him back to prison. Then suddenly I started laughing. I laughed so hard I think I scared him. Me, a Princeton trained attorney reading westerns? I agreed to his outrageous demand because it was just too crazy not to. We made a gentlemen’s pact that we would alternate choices; we’d read a western one week, then a classic the next. I’ll never forget my first western: “Blood, Buckskin and Bullets.” Then we’d discuss what we read, like a book club.
I decided to get even with him the next week and assigned him “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” One thing I learned was that Forrest was no slouch when it came to reading. He could read a hundred and fifty pages a day. He actually made lists of words he didn’t understand and would look them up. He had an intellectual curiosity that fascinated me. It became readily apparent to me that he would have been solid college material; perhaps not at Princeton, but certainly at some of the lesser outlying schools.
Forrest had some extraordinary insights into Constance Chatterley. He wondered how she could be so miserable when she had everything a person could desire. So I asked him what she had that should have made her happy. He answered that she had a big house surrounded by beautiful woods, servants, and nice clothes. I reminded him that Constance had a husband who didn’t care about her and her big house kept her isolated. Then he brought up the point that neither the townspeople nor her servants could be her friends because of class differences. Maybe, he said, the insidious smells of the factories were symbolic of her unhappiness. We discussed her affair with the gamekeeper, and we decided it wasn’t really about sex as much as the emotional connection with him that she needed. Our conversation about the D. H. Lawrence novel was so intriguing that I felt young again, like I was back in Professor Griffin’s English Literature class at Princeton. I thought we could continue our discussion at a good restaurant, so we both put on blazers and drove to the Velvet Sparrow. It was a mistake. I’d picked the restaurant out of habit, and forgot it was a favorite of attorneys. As soon as we were seated, I recognized a group of four at the table next to us. There were two attorneys I knew and their spouses. They immediately stood up and left the restaurant, the younger attorney glaring at me as he slowly passed by. Then he stopped at the doorway and looked back at me. I knew that look. It was the look of a young man who wanted to do battle. He was ready to fight. I just let him stew there for a moment and let him go.
Forrest looked like a little boy about to cry. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what was going on. He asked me what I wanted to do. I stood up and walked over to the attorneys’ table and looked at the half-eaten dinners. Then I picked up their bread basket and brought it over to our table.
“I’m going to eat their bread is what I want to do.” And I took a big bite. I laughed to try make light of the situation. Forrest just looked down. We ordered dinner and made the best of it, but the entire evening was nearly unbearable for both of us.
I soon learned that the restaurant incident left a lasting impression on Forrest. A couple weeks later, he apologized to me for all the problems he caused. I told him that he never caused me problems. He said he knew I had been shunned by my entire profession. I laughed and told him the truth: I became an outcast the day I retired. In the law profession, you’re either in or out and there is no in between. Once you hang it up, you have nothing left to offer and you’re out. I told him that I’d actually been freed from the cage I’d been living in for all my adult life. Then he apologized to me for killing my friend. I told him it was a long time ago, and he wasn’t the same person now. He nodded and said that he still wakes up every morning hating himself for what he did. I could tell he meant every word. But I also knew about his past. I told him that nobody should have gone through what he did growing up. I knew his father had deserted him when he was two and he spent the rest of his childhood in poverty. His mother had committed suicide by drinking ant poison in the car they were living in at the time. He’s the one who found her body in a dented Oldsmobile. Now, forty-one years later, he had this one last chance at life. The attorneys I worked with were born into privilege. They never had to live in a car with a mentally ill mother or drink warm Coke found in a garbage can for breakfast. Who are they to judge Forrest; to walk out of a restaurant because of him? He worked in a prison kitchen for twenty years, and they have to humiliate him when he finally sits down to a good meal. I could only hope these men got the rare diseases they feared most.
It was about then that I decided to let Forrest ride Diamond Girl. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when I saddled her and another horse for us to ride. It was pretty frosty that morning and I knew Forrest would be up at 6:30 exactly because that’s how it worked in prison. Forrest had never asked to ride her, but I knew he wanted to. I saw him up at the window of the big house almost every morning as I rode through the valley. It was finally his turn.
I remember we rode for about an hour that morning, on the trails the horses knew by heart. The morning was warming up and we could hear the water dripping from the melting ice all around us. At one point, Forrest stopped and dismounted. He cupped his hands under a trickle of icy water and lavished his face with it. This was freedom to him. I got down and took a taste of the water too. He said he wished Constance Chatterley was here to taste this. I laughed and helped him back onto Diamond Girl.
We walked into a surprise when we got back to the house. Forrest walked in first and he suddenly froze in place, staring at something I couldn’t see. As I came around the corner, I saw what it was.
“Tad,” I said to the young man in the hallway.
“Dad.” He said.
There was silence. I didn’t know what to say.
“Sorry I didn’t call,” he said. “I caught a cab from the airport. I’m staying at the Westin for a few days.”
I nodded. He knew he always had a room here. This was about Forrest. All about Forrest.
“Well, I hope you can be here for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“No. I don’t think I can. I’m having dinner with some friends.”
I nodded. I looked over at Forrest. “Forrest, I’d like you to meet my son, Tad.”
“He knows who I am, Dad.”
There was more silence. “Perhaps we can discuss this privately, son.”
“Why? Let’s have it out like men. It’s not like you’ve kept your life private. I have to hear about it from my colleagues. Dad, what are you doing with the family name?”
“The family name, or yours’?”
“I’m doing everything I can to build it up, but you’re doing everything you can to destroy it. I’m in Nicaragua sacrificing everything to help people.” Then he pointed to Forrest. “He killed one of us.”
I lost my cool. “And what is ‘one of us,’ Tad? Rich men with law degrees? And who are the brown-skinned people you’re helping in Nicaragua? Do you share your Ferragamo loafers and the Cartier wristwatches while you dish them out their rations? I was a young attorney once too. We did our share of civic duties. I used to defend kids from the bad side of town pro-bono because it made the firm look good and it made me look good to the firm. But I was like you. I’d help them, so long as I didn’t have to get too close to them. Forrest is different, I tell you. He’s done his time. Why don’t you sit down and just talk to him?
“Don’t ever put me and that murderer in the same breath. He doesn’t deserve to breathe my air. What do you think mom would think if she were alive today?”
“Probably the same thing you’re thinking.”
We stared at each other. “I came here to see if it was all true. I read the article, but I wanted to hear it from you directly. Now, I don’t think there’s anything more for us to talk about,” he said, then turned and walked out. “Goddamn it!” I heard him say. “I told that son of a bitch to wait.” I walked out and saw the taxi driving off.
“Forrest,” I said. Tad and I went back inside and saw that he was gone. I went to my Audi and called Farwest and learned the cab was heading for the downtown YMCA. I managed to beat the cab there. I was waiting for him as he stepped out of the cab.
He told me all the things I knew he would. He cost me my reputation. He cost me my family. I let him vent and just listened. He told me he was going to get a job in a kitchen somewhere and find a cheap apartment. If he couldn’t find a job, then he would voluntarily go back to prison. When he was done, I took him by the arm and led him to a Sheri’s restaurant next door and sat him in a booth. He was distraught, and I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Finally he confessed; he told me everything my son said was true. He was a murderer and people shouldn’t have to breathe the same air.
A young waitress came to our table and asked if we wanted coffee. I nodded and she flipped over our coffee cups and began pouring. Then she suddenly shrieked. It startled both of us. She grasped my hand and thanked me. She told us she had read the newspaper article about us a year ago and that it restored her faith in mankind. She told Forrest how brave he was for starting his life over. She brought two other servers over to meet us. They shook our hands and brought us omelettes and refused to take my money. Some customers came up and shook our hands too. In the end, I guided Forrest back to my Audi and we went home.
It was shortly after that in December when I drove Forrest into town. He didn’t know where we were going. I took him to the Community College. He asked me if I was delivering a guest lecture. I told him that I thought he was ready for some classes. I read panic in his eyes. I calmed him down, and I asked him to just walk through campus with me. It was finals week, so the place wasn’t very crowded. We sat down in the cafeteria and had donuts and coffee. He was tense. He told me the cafeteria smelled like the prison kitchen. We didn’t spend much time on campus, but on the way home I asked him to try. I told him the truth, that I knew he could be successful. We still discussed literature, every Tuesday and Friday. In fact, I was often impressed by his insight. I was certain that he had an above average IQ. Finally, he relented. I signed him up for two classes: basic mathematics and an entry level English Composition class. We went to the bookstore and picked up the textbooks he would need for winter quarter. He handled them gingerly, as if they might be laced with poison. He was especially troubled by the math book. The numerical symbols on the pages were like a foreign language to him.
To prepare him for the academic quarter, I sat him down every morning and went over basic mathematic principles with him. I also kept him busy with various writing exercises. I taught him how to write a simple one-page essay. Often times we would watch a TV show, and I would ask him what the major themes in the episode were. Still, he was terrified on the first day of the quarter. I drove him in and he didn’t want to get out of the car. I actually had the urge to go with him into class, but then I realized this was something he had to do himself. I assured him it would all be okay, and he went off.
It wasn’t until the second week of the quarter that Forrest had an assignment due. He wrote a 3-page paper on a Katherine Mansfield short story. He got the paper back on Monday. I picked him up at the front of the college. He got in and showed me the graded paper. He received a 3.3. The professor wrote that it was a very good paper. He looked at her comments all the way home and when we arrived, I could see his eyes were wet. I reached over and squeezed his shoulder. I was very proud of him. I took him out to dinner that night to celebrate his big victory. From that day on, he became a homework champion. As soon as he got home from school, he would sit down in my den and work on his assignments. And he would stay in there until I called him out for dinner. I’d never seen a more dedicated student. The next quarter, he took a full 15 credits including basic algebra, English 102, and bio 101. His grades steadily climbed until he made it on the Dean’s List. Every Friday after class, I would reward him with a dinner at one of the city’s premier restaurants. I looked forward to these dinners too; Forrest had become my best friend. I enjoyed his company. His favorite restaurant was the Vieux Carre, a French place adorned with ornate scrollwork.
I once asked Forrest if the other students treated him badly because of his past. He said everyone treated him well, even the professors. He felt like he belonged there. I was both pleased and envious; envious because I knew there was nowhere that I truly belonged anymore, not even in my own family. My wife was dead and my son hated me. It seemed even Forrest was being pulled away from me by the college. We no longer had our literature sessions because he spent all his spare time on his coursework. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss them.
That Christmas, Forrest asked me if he could invite a few students over for a holiday dinner. He had some friends that didn’t have any family in the area. I told him okay, and I began preparing a Christmas menu. My mother actually had been a socialite from the South, and she taught me the grand traditions of southern aristocracy when I was a boy. I was always fascinated on how she could cook virtually everything in bourbon.
We had three of Forrest’s friends over on Christmas. They were good kids; very respectful and quite lively. I prepared a grand spread of food that would have made my mom proud. And for the first time in years, the house was alive again. How I missed it.
Little did I know that this Christmas, Forrest’s third in my house, was to be the high-water mark of our friendship. In mid-spring quarter, he began to get terribly fatigued. He complained of stomach pain. I took him in to see my doctor. She told us she was concerned about some irregularities in Forrest’s bloodwork and she ordered more tests. A week later, she sat us down in a windowless room and told us the bad news. Forrest had stage 4 lymphoma. I watched Forrest closely. He showed no emotion as he listened to what the doctor had to say. She referred us to an oncologist. Forrest had said nothing during the meeting. The next day we were in the cancer wing at the hospital. We met Forrest’s new doctor; a young looking man with a pencil thin mustache named Dr. Morley. He outlined an aggressive treatment program, but the chances of a cure were virtually non-existent. He estimated Forrest had about a year left. At the end of the meeting Forrest raised his head up, looked squarely at Dr. Morley, and asked him if he could continue attending his classes. The doctor told him as long as he felt up to it. Then he looked at me and asked me to keep this a secret from the college. I agreed.
The first few treatments actually stabilized Forrest’s condition, and I started wondering if maybe he wasn’t sick at all. Maybe it was a misdiagnosis. Or maybe the treatments really could cure him. But I knew I was only fooling myself. When Forrest couldn’t attend classes because of his treatment, his friends took notes for him and sent them on email. His schoolwork became an obsession with him. We stopped going out to dinner completely. He had one year left to complete his Associate’s degree and he had one year of life left. It became a race against time. By the fall quarter, his illness began showing again. He was getting tired and pale. But he refused to miss school.
By spring quarter, I knew Forrest couldn’t go on much longer. He was quite ill by then. The other students must have known he was very sick. He reminded me of one of those war movies where the hero is mortally wounded but still keeps crawling forward. Forrest had that kind of heart. But one day, he’d had enough. He asked me if he could ride Diamond Girl one more time. I helped him into the saddle and we rode for about ten minutes. Then I helped him down and I drove him to the hospital to die.
I basically moved into the hospital with him. I slept in the recliner in his room. I didn’t want him to die alone, especially if death came at night. I wanted him to know I was there with him. I read to him, and this comforted him. Two days after his admittance, a man in a cardigan came into the room holding a package. He shook my hand and introduced himself as the college dean. Then he moved to Forrest’s bedside and told him that his professors had unanimously agreed that he had completed sufficient coursework to have earned his degree. He reached into the bag and withdrew a framed diploma with the name Forrest A. Baker inscribed on it. Forrest was too weak to hold it, so I took the diploma and put it in his hands. He held it on his chest and I kneeled down and put my arm over his shoulders. He rolled his head my direction and whispered something to me, but I couldn’t understand what he said. I nodded to him anyway.
That night, I knelt down by his bed. I told him that he should no longer feel indebted to me. I told him about a 15-year old girl who I had defended pro-bono as a new attorney nearly half a century ago. And I told him how ashamed I was when I lost my ethics one evening with her. It was the one thing in my life I wish I could take back. The only person I’d ever told about this was my best friend, Timothy Smoll. In fact, I bragged about it to him when we were in a bar after work. How could I have known five years later he would become mentally unstable? The firm was about to fire him, and he filed suit against them. I was subpoenaed as a witness in the whole damn thing. Two weeks before the trial, he came over to my house. I went out and talked to him on the porch while my wife stayed inside. He told me he remembered the girl. My heart froze. I just stood there; he laughed and walked away. I was soon going to be put under oath and his attorneys could ask me anything. Then they’d find the girl. My career was over. My life was over.
But then six days before Smoll’s trial was to start, he got drunk, wandered into the street, and was killed by a man with an unloaded gun. That very moment, I was reborn. A week later I bought the ranch. A year later, Tad was born.
I stood up and leaned towards Forrest so my head was resting on his chest. I told him that I had silently thanked him every single day he was in prison. Everything I had in life truly belonged to him.
I didn’t know if he’d heard me or not. His eyes never opened, but he seemed to hear. The next morning, Dr. Morley told me there was one last option for treatment. There was an experimental drug that had only been approved for hopeless cases such as Forrest’s. However, the drug had occasionally proven effective for preserving life for up to two months. It could possibly bring Forrest out of his coma for a limited time. The decision was up to me because Forrest had listed me as next of kin.
“He’s been through enough,” I said.
REDEMPTION By Karen J Collins, editor for the Gazelle
Almost three years ago, I wrote the amazing story of Forrest Baker for the Times (find the link here). It was perhaps the most emotional story I’d ever written and I received hundreds of responses from readers, the vast majority of them positive. I think the story of Forrest Baker touched the lives of many people because it is an affirmation of life. It is a story about love, friendship, and forgiveness.
Now it is with great sadness that I feel compelled to write a follow up to that story. Forrest was diagnosed with lymphoma two years ago and he took his last breath on May 16, at 1;04 AM. His soul slipped into the darkness as quietly as it had come. By his bedside was his mentor, Jake Harrison, who had promised Forrest that he wouldn’t die alone. Jake kept that last promise to him, and so much more. The proudest achievement in Forrest’s life was to earn a college degree after he was released from prison, and it was Jake who made it possible. His diploma was delivered to him as he lay dying in the hospital.
But Forrest’s story doesn’t end there. I sat down with Jake Harrison last week who told me the rest. Jake no longer lives on the ranch he owned for almost fifty years. He sold it shortly after Forrest died and moved into a condominium. “It was too big for me,” Jake says with a slight quiver in his voice. “And too lonely. It was time to move on.” He sold his string of horses too. He only misses one of them: Diamond Girl. “I gave her to a camp for kids with cancer. They can ride her and pet her. The counselors say it’s very therapeutic.” I ask if he ever goes to visit her. He shakes his head, “She had a calling bigger than me. Bigger than the ranch. I’m no longer a part of her world.”
A month after Forrest’s death, Jake accepted an offer by the college to walk in the graduation ceremony for Forrest. Everyone in the school knew about Forrest and welcomed the retired attorney into the ceremony.
“The campus meant so much to him,” Jake says. “I think the college validated his life. When they called out his name at the graduation, the entire audience stood up and cheered. I wish he could have been there to see that.”
Validation didn’t just come to Forrest, but also to Jake. “When my efforts freed Forrest from prison, I was ostracized by my own profession,” he says. “But I think the ship is slowly changing course.” Jake reports that he now receives requests as a guest lecturer, and some of his former colleagues send him Christmas cards again.
The most emotional moment of the interview comes when Jake drives me out to see Forrest’s grave. He brings a large bouquet of flowers. The grave marker is almost too simple. The inscription is in plain block lettering:
FORREST A. BAKER
The tall man sadly clears away some old flowers, and places the colorful new ones beside his friend. Then he lays a worn paperback copy of a Zane Grey novel gently over the grave.
“For old times,” he says.
-Karen J Collins/Photos: Herbert Davies