Virgil Lyle Baker (1896–1974)

Virgil Lyle Baker was an author, playwright, director, and educator who served as a faculty member and department head in the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He was instrumental in creating the drama program at UA.

Virgil Baker was born in Prescott, Iowa, on August 18, 1896, into the farming family of James Baker and Ida Baker. He had a younger brother, Ralph L. Baker, and younger sister, Elsie M. Baker. Baker spent his childhood in various towns in Muskingum County, Ohio. He attended Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, graduating with a BA in 1922. Baker attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he worked as a graduate assistant from 1926 to 1929, graduating in 1929 with an MA in English. He went on to do coursework toward a PhD at the University of Iowa.

Baker began his career in education as a high school teacher in Cañon City, Colorado, before joining the UA faculty in 1929 as an assistant professor of public speaking in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Baker met Lillian Bay, a speech therapist, while both were students at Muskingum College. They were married in Muskingum on June 12, 1918, and the couple had four sons and one daughter.

During his time at UA, Baker encouraged the development of the theater program and produced one-act and full-length plays. From 1931 onward, Baker advocated for resources to expand the drama program at the university. He organized the first theatre group on campus, the “University Theatre,” in the fall of 1932, with a membership of fifty students. Baker served as head of the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art from 1935 until his retirement in 1965. In 1937, Baker attained the rank of associate professor of speech and dramatic art; he achieved tenure in 1949 and the rank of full professor in 1952.

During World War II, Baker briefly left the university to serve in the U.S. Army as a private from July 1943 through December 1944, helping to camouflage airports overseas with the camouflage division of the engineer corps. During his time in the military, Baker’s wife, Lillian Bay Baker, supervised the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art.

After many years of advocating for designated theater space, Baker oversaw the opening of the University Theatre building during the 1951–52 academic year. In addition to his work with the University Theatre, Baker served on the Faculty Committee on Intercollegiate Debating and was the coach for the university’s debate program. He also regularly worked with the local Fayetteville radio station, KUOA, giving talks and having his students write and perform radio dramas. Baker retired from the university at the end of the spring semester in 1965.

Baker was an active member of professional organizations and published widely in the fields of public speaking and theater, including a substantial number of plays, books of poetry, and educational materials. His notable publications include “Albert Pike: Citizen Speechmaker of Arkansas” (1951) and Principles of Effective Speaking (1958). He served as the president of the Arkansas Association of Teachers of Speech from 1940 to 1941. In 1946, Baker established the first chapter of the National Collegiate Players honors society in Arkansas, and he was honored by the American Theater Associates in 1954 for his production of new plays and encouragement of new playwrights.

Baker died on June 5, 1974, and is buried at Fairview Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fayetteville.

For additional information:
“Former Speech Instructor at University Dies.” Northwest Arkansas Times, June 6, 1974, p. 1.

“Three Sons in Service, Virgil Baker Enlists as Private in Army.” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 29, 1943, p. 1.

Virgil L. Baker Papers (MC 702). Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://libraries.uark.edu/specialcollections/findingaids/ead/transform.php?xml=mc702#idm1079708544 (accessed July 30, 2020).

Kara Flynn
University of Arkansas

Last Updated: 07/30/2020