Employee of the Year ‘has to be outside’

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2014 

He laid bricks for the library. He poured cement for the fire station. He has laid sidewalks and built handicapped ramps.

In 14-degree weather one morning in January, Clayton’s Employee of the Year for 2013, Donnie Baker, worked with a three-man crew to build a shelter that would protect town equipment.

His award sits in his office at the Clayton operations center, but the Micro resident is almost never there to see it. He is always working, and for Baker, that means outdoors.

“I’ve seen him in 100-degree days; I’ve seen him in the wintertime,” said Fire Chief Lee Barbee. “No matter how big the job is, he puts 100 percent effort in it. He don’t jackleg it.”

Calling Baker’s work ethic commendable, Barbee said he deserved the Employee of the Year award. “It doesn’t matter which department it is or where they send him, he’s going to do the same quality work,” the chief said.

On that January morning, with the ground frozen solid, Baker led a construction crew as it built a pole barn across from Clayton High School. Bundled in gloves and boots, his breath visible in the extreme cold, Baker told his story.

He grew up on his family’s tobacco farm on Starline Road near Selma. His grandmother cautioned him to never trust anyone who drove a Cadillac, and his uncle warned him to never trust a preacher with fancy, turned-up shoes.

More than that, they taught him how to work hard.

One of the memorable jobs was spreading manure from an old Massey-Ferguson tractor. The spray was so intense, Baker said it didn’t matter how many layers of clothes he wore.

“When you got off that tractor, it would be two inches thick on your shoulder,” he said.

His uncle, Charles Wiggs, would make sure he was up early every day, busy.

“At 4:30 in the morning, school or no school, you were up doing something; you had to be doing something,” he said. Baker to this day rises around 4 a.m., drinks one cup of coffee and works steadily until evening.

Baker graduated from high school at 17 with a full scholarship to N.C. University but stayed for just one semester of mechanical engineering.

“I just had to go to work,” he said. “I had to be outside.”

He worked as a diesel mechanic for some time after that, traveling as far as Minnesota for work. He missed home, however, and returned to the area to become a bricklayer.

Around that time, he and Alma “Penny” Baker, now his wife of 26 years, married and went on to have three children: Brent, Brittany and James. Baker said his wife is indescribable.

“I don’t know how to describe Penny,” he said. “I don’t know; she’s my heart.”

For 22 years, Baker laid bricks for a man in Four Oaks. He led a crew of 12 and was clearing $275,000 a year, he said. His boss bought a new pickup for him every year and gave him $10,000 Christmas bonuses.

“There was a lot of money generated,” Baker said. “Bricklaying was a good cash flow.”

Then came 2008.

“We talk about it pre-2008 and post-2008,” he said of the housing bust. After the recession hit, he sold his big house on Holt Lake and paid off all his debts.

“It didn’t leave me a lot of money, but at least all my people were paid,” Baker said.

Now a masonry specialist and street department crew leader for Clayton, Baker said he enjoys what he does, even if the pace is slower and the scale smaller than his former employment.

He said the work ethic and moral code that keep him ticking from morning to night come from the lessons instilled in him by his grandmother and uncle when he was a boy.

“Don’t cheat. Don’t lie. Don’t steal,” he said. “You do that, you’re not going to have any problems. I go to bed at 9:30, and I sleep real good.”

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