For Faculty, Students, and Friends of Saint Mary, the Passing of Sr. Mary Erwin Baker, C’63, Leaves a Great Void in the University Community. But Those Who Knew Her and Worked with Her Are Also Left With Some Remarkable Memories.
Sr. Mary Erwin Baker lived the first decades of her life boldly—delving into the latest in technology, always pushing her students to excel, and traveling to new locales with gusto. She lived the final few years in the same spirit, displaying a courage that few may ever know.
Sr. Mary Erwin passed away on Sept. 24 at the age of 77, after a hard-fought struggle with neurodegenerative ataxia, an incurable condition that relentlessly attacks the brain’s ability to control the body’s motor functions. Despite the grave nature of the condition, Sr. Mary Erwin took it on more as a problem to be solved than a source of fear and despair.
“She always said that she approached it as a challenge, as a puzzle,” said Sr. Kathleen Wood, C’70, and a long-time friend
of Sr. Mary Erwin. “Her math and science and observation skills served her well in both trying to continue to teach us to make things more accessible and to help her be active and involved much longer than one might have expected...
“Each morning, she’d be aware of what skills she might not be able to do quite as quickly or as well, and she’d try to find a way to work things so she could go about her day.”
Sr. Mary Erwin, born Marlene Anne Baker, answered her religious calling while enrolled at Saint Mary College, making her profession of vows as a Sister of Charity in 1955. She went on to establish herself as a dynamic, dedicated, and whipsmart
educator, teaching students at every level from grade school to high school to college during a career that took her
from Kansas and Missouri to Colorado and back. Math was her specialty, and a great love
“She was very good at working with students who were having a hard time with math, and she was ever so patient with them if they would put in the effort to get better,” Sr. Wood said. “She had no use for someone who wanted you to do the work for them. But she loved to give people confidence in themselves to discover their potential and succeed—especially those who at first thought they couldn’t.”
Sr. Mary Erwin’s friends remember her as an avid reader and lover of classical music. She had a decided taste for the high tech, and helped introduce the first personal computers to the Saint Mary campus.
Sr. Mary Erwin, with Sr. Wood at her side, was diagnosed with ataxia in 2001. What happened in the years that followed helped cement the popular teacher as a Saint Mary legend. Following her diagnosis, Sr. Mary Erwin became something of a fixture in several of the USM nursing program’s classes, particularly the end-of-life classes—not as a formal instructor, but as the subject.
Kathy Ducey, an associate professor in USM’s nursing program and a 1990 Saint Mary grad and former student of Sr. Mary Erwin’s, started the process.
“She was one of the first people I bumped into when I came back as a faculty member in 2006, and we renewed our friendship,” Prof. Ducey said. “She had ataxia at that time, and I told her we were starting the nursing program. She told
me I want to talk to the students.”
Prof. Ducey said Sr. Mary Erwin became the nursing department’s first patient.
“Our students would move her, from the scooter to the chair to the bed… She’d just giggle through the whole thing,” she said. “She’d come and give talks to the classes and give them advice, tell them things to do, what worked, what didn’t.
“It was a phenomenal experience for the students, and for me,” Prof. Ducey said. “You rarely find people willing to speak so openly.”
One student, Jackie Asherman, U’08, said she will never forget her sessions with Sr. Mary Erwin. “We were supposed to be her nurses that day, but instead, she took care of us, put us at ease, and told us what great nurses we would be.”
Prof. Ducey said she learned from the sessions as well.
“The top lesson she taught us was caring,” she said. “She taught us how to care. The top thing she stressed to students was to just listen to your patients. Not just hear, listen. Listen and listen deeper. We called it ‘nursing assessment.’ She just called it ‘listening.’”
For her efforts, the nursing students decided in 2008 to create the Sr. Mary Erwin Baker Award for Caring Behaviors. The annual award recognizes the Saint Mary student who best personifies the “Five C’s” of nursing—Compassion, Competence, Confidence, Conscience, and Commitment. Sr. Mary Erwin was flattered.
Sr. Mary Erwin appeared in her final nursing class in the fall of 2009. But she continued to have nursing students visit her in Ross Hall for educational sessions long after she was unable to make the trek to their classrooms, Prof. Ducey said.
“She was always the professor,” Prof. Ducey said. “You couldn’t have the students come over to take care of her. They came for her to teach them.”
As a former student of Sr. Mary Erwin’s, Prof. Ducey was not surprised by her dedication to student learning.
“I met her in the late ‘80s. I was a student here completing my BSN, and she was my statistics teacher,” Prof. Ducey said. “I was no math major, and she recognized that pretty instinctively. She was wonderful. I was working at St. John’s, and she called and said ‘you need some help in this class, and you need to come here after work.’ So I did.
“I sat down at the computer, and she handed me a floppy disc, and she said ‘everything you need is here on this disc. She was a really amazing lady, and she was ahead of the times.’”
But Sr. Mary Erwin’s appearances in nursing classes went beyond her love of teaching. She advocated for anything that
would better the lives of those suffering from afflictions.
“Once her condition of ataxia was diagnosed, she extensively researched the causes and effects of the condition for herself and others afflicted,” said friend Sr. Mary Pat Lenahan, C’70. “She sought ways to prepare for the personal toll the condition would exact by looking at ways that technology could better serve those who would need ways to communicate as it would become more difficult with the progression of the condition.”
Sr. Wood added “she always felt herself an ombudsman for patients.”
For those who knew her well, it was difficult to watch the disease take its toll on Sr. Mary Erwin. But, through it all, they said, she handled her condition with strength, courage, and a positive outlook.
“She handled it well,” Sr. Wood said. “Naturally, it was a great sadness in her life, and she did struggle with the Lord’s
choice of this. But when people visited with her, they always felt a kind of peace around her.”
Prof. Ducey added “she was always in a good mood. That was the thing that was pretty amazing to the students and me. She was always trying to make the best of the challenges she was given, and her spirits were always good.”
Her friends say they were honored just to know her.
“I think she would want to be remembered as a Sister of Charity who loved her community and her family and enjoyed teaching,” Sr. Wood said. “She was a very good friend, and many people have many cherished and special memories of her.”
THOUGHTS & MEMORIES FROM SR. MARY ERWIN’S FRIENDS
Professor Ducey announced that she had a surprise for us: "Class, today you are getting your very first patient." There we were, first week of school, 40 completely green nursing students, eager but clueless, backpacks crammed to the brim with a mountain of books, assignments, and nursing gadgets we didn't even know the names of yet. Our first patient? What brave soul would volunteer to be our very first patient? Well, Sister Mary Erwin Baker, of course. There she came, toodling cheerfully in on her cherry red scooter with a sparkle in her eye and basket full of helpful gadgets. She had a gadget that helped her reach things, another that helped her put on her shoes, and a bike horn to warn folks to move on over...she was coming through! (She admitted that sometimes it was fun to make folks jump a little when she honked.) We were supposed to be her nurses that day, but instead, she took care of us, putting us at ease, and telling us what great nurses we would be. With the patience of a saint, Sister Mary Erwin endured and trusted us as we practiced transferring her from her scooter to a chair. Sharp as a tack, Sister Mary Erwin taught us about ataxia, and I don't think any of us missed those questions on our first neuro exam. She also gently but firmly told us to appreciate the little things we might take for granted, like the ability to talk without effort, dial a phone, chew our food or jump up and give a hug to someone we love. She inspired us that day, melted our fears, and stole our hearts. She won't need her scooter in heaven, but I bet she brought the bike horn along, just for fun. Hugs to you Sr. Mary Erwin. You will be missed, but never forgotten.
— Jacki Asherman, U’08
She was an incredible teacher. Frankly, Sr. Mary Erwin was one of the best teachers I had at Saint Mary. She believed in me and knew I could do it! "It" being math, which I was never my strong subject. Pretty special lady indeed! You will be missed!
— Kelly Vestal, C'01
What a great person she was. Will truly be missed in the Saint Mary community
—Sharon Kirby, C'81
I will forever be indebted to sister for the tutoring she gave me that allowed me to pass the PPST. The Saint Mary family was so blessed to have her.
—Amy Hill Godina
When I came to Saint Mary College as a student in 1989, Sr. Mary Erwin was one of the first teachers I met. Five years later I came back as full-time faculty and she was the first to come to my office and welcome me. We struck up a friendship that continued during our time as faculty and even after she retired and became ill. Her smile, kind words, and willingness to serve others were always evident and I will never forget the impact she had on my life. I had the opportunity to be with Sr. Mary Erwin outside of work as we had mutual friends that included her family. Again, she was the same regardless of environment. The way she stepped up to record her final days and to help educate our nursing students is remarkable. Where others may have hidden from the public, Sr. Mary Erwin wanted others aware so they may learn and serve others. She will be missed, but God has given me my memories of her for a lifetime.
—Prof. Rick Hite
While I didn’t have the privilege of teaching with Sister Mary Erwin, her presence is certainly felt within the mathematics program. I remember that one of the classes I was asked to teach my first semester at USM was Modern Geometry. Well, I had not even had a course in Modern Geometry much less have taught it. So, I contacted Sister Mary Erwin to see if she had any recommendations, and of course, she had plenty. I believe she felt honored that I had asked her for help. She continued to send me information, materials, links, and even “old” calculators well into her retirement. Each time I saw her she greeted me with a warm welcome and was curious about how things were going in the math program. She was a kind, gentle, generous soul who always seemed to have a smile on her face. Her love of math and her dedication to teaching helped pioneer the math program into the program it is today.
—Prof. Rick Silvey