Remembering Chuck Baird (1947-2012)

I first met Chuck Baird when I was 10. My parents took me to see King of Hearts, a magnificent production by the National Theatre of the Deaf. To this day, it’s the only theatrical production I ever really enjoyed. After the show, Chuck came out to mingle with the audience. I remember him as being gregarious; he didn’t talk down to me, and I walked away in awe of his sincerity.

Fifteen years later, I went with friends to the annual International Center on Deafness festival in Chicago. By then, I had become aware of Chuck’s notoriety as an artist, and was a bit star-struck when a friend introduced us. I told him of how we met nearly two decades before. He told me later that it was at that moment that he knew that we were meant to be soul friends.

Today, 30 years after I first met Chuck and three years after his passing, I think about him often. We became extremely close in the years after our second meeting, and I came to know him not as Chuck the deaf artist, but as someone who constantly found himself at odds with his own world views, beliefs, and values. He and I were kindred spirits, and he helped bring me out of a dark time. I took to calling him my heart savior, because he helped heal my heart with his wisdom and belief in me.

We saw each other frequently, usually at deaf events, and we were inseparable when together. We met up in Kentucky, California, Missouri, New York, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and so many other places. He was fiercely loyal to me as I was to him, and showed that in so many ways when we visited.

As I became busier, having four children in four years, and as he relocated to Austin, Texas, we didn’t talk as often. Still, we continued to meet up from time to time. A month after I had my first child, Chuck made a detour from a stay in South Dakota to see me during the 2008 Clerc Classic tournament in Minnesota. As always, it was like no time had gone by. We talked nonstop, and I remember him looking at my daughter in awe, a child who was an extension of me.

Chuck was truly a Renaissance man. He was also the perfect example of a starving, temperamental artist — always on the hunt for the next paycheck, the next place to live. That sometimes was frustrating for me, because I knew intimately his amazing talents and his mind-blowing brilliance. He was and is revered as an artist, yet he never made the money he deserved. We spent hours talking about this, along with our life experiences, Deaf history, philosophy, God, friends, books, and everything else under the sun. He gave me so many beautiful things: a book about covered bridges, a leather journal, his artwork, jewelry like a necklace with shapes resembling the ASL sign for “communicate,” and best of all, his time.

When Chuck told me he had cancer, I was heartbroken. I felt helpless because I was so far away, and pregnant yet again. As his time came closer, we became more spiritually connected, even though we didn’t talk often. He and I agreed that he would mail me all of my letters back to me, so I could read the many handwritten letters we had exchanged. I read each letter and cried and laughed at how raw and honest we had been with each other. I then destroyed them, as Chuck and I had agreed.

Chuck, or CCB as I always called him, became increasingly religious as he neared the end. He told me about how one night during of his many visits to the hospital, he was in bed praying. He said he began singing, imagining angels around him as he sang. “I didn’t care if anyone heard me or my deaf voice at the time. I just sang, and felt so incredibly connected to God,” he said. The radiance from his face as he told me this story gave me chills.

The last time I saw him was exactly a month before he died. We chatted for two hours via video as he ate soup and fiddled with the baseball cap he had on. Even though I had seen him a few times, it was still always a shock to see how thin he had gotten. I experienced so much joy that night, even as bittersweet as it was. I somehow knew this would be our last face-to-face conversation, but didn’t dare say it.

An e-mail he sent me immediately after our conversation contained his last words to me: “I loved and enjoyed our chat tonight. Love you in peace thru Christ, my true friend. ccb.”

I was among the first to learn of his death on the morning of February 10, 2012. I had slept fitfully all night, knowing he was going to leave us any minute. I sat up in bed, numbed by the text message I had just read. I knew a great spirit had left us, one who was often underappreciated yet was incredibly beloved. A mutual close friend warned me that people would come out of the woodwork once he passed away, and he was right. So many articles, posts and emails were shared about his “greatness” — mostly in reference to his acting and art. All I kept wanting to say was, “But you don’t know how he was so much more than his art. He was a tormented soul who found joy in the littlest things and had so much love for the mind, the soul and God.” It’s taken me this long to even feel comfortable talking about how extraordinary Chuck was.

Chuck Baird with Trudy SuggsWhen I think of Chuck, I remember how he had the chubbiest fingers and how I took pleasure in watching them create masterfully crafted words and art. I think of how we squabbled often, but always quickly soothing the other. I think of how I scolded him for being so tactless — he once said, when I showed him a picture right after the birth of my second child, “Oh my gosh, you look fat!” I think about how he got annoyed with me for being bossy, especially when I lectured him about his weight; our annoyances certainly went both ways. I think about how he had such a passionate spirit. I think about how shockingly salt-and-pepper his hair was and how his beard became the same. I think about how we always laughed at the littlest things.

Mostly, I think about how Chuck showed me what a deep, true friendship is: full of ups and downs, exasperation, delight, wonder, and love all coming together to create a marvelous connection. He was, and is, my heart savior — something that I can never repay him for.

Happy birthday, CCB.

Copyrighted material, used by permission. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

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  1. Steve C. Baldwin says:

    Wonderful tribute to the one and only, CB. My wife Rosie, who knew him since his Spectrum days in 1978, accompanied him to ER room several times and visited him in his hospice room one last time, said that you signed your story aptly, wonderfully and truthfully about him as a person. If I may add, since I have known him as my track teammate in 1967 (diehard KU basketball fan he was), your appreciation of the impact he had on your life is yours to behold. What a poignant story about our true Renaissance friend. Thank you, Trudy, for sharing your memories of Chuck Baird on his “68th” birthday. What an anniversary gift for him!

  2. Vijay Advani says:

    Glad that you share your unique commentary. You are right about CB talents only in every article that we read. Your commentary makes me wondering that how much appreciation you both shared. We should look at the whole of the person -not based on talents or a famous career. I am asking if you consider writing a biography on the “Renaissance man” such as CB if CB did not mind. I do respect CB if he preferred not to be more painted with his life in the book because of your cherished bond and trust. Thank you Trudy, for providing some basic facts of CB.

  3. Beautiful!

    I growing up study Chuck Baird biography in Deaf studies, see his working displayed, and people talking about their encounter with CB. CB in this frame was a gifted artist.

    CB was an artist in residence at Gallaudet. Students telling me that taking class with Chuck Baird was not just about paint a picture art but a much deeper expressive using through art to exploring, reasoning, debating, and dreaming.

    CB and I encountered in a unusual setting. I was doing fundraising car washing in front of Gallaudet’s Elstad theatre. CB just simply hang out with us talking while we washing the vehicles. CB took the time to meet those students.

    It was a profound experience. In short conversation with CB and he was not making a small talk. The more we talk and CB transiting into a deeper, engaging conversation. Forth on, CB was not just someone famous and he was someone that we call him our friend. CB would make the time to said hi or to continue from our previous chat when we bump into each other.

    In this encounter, CB is a master conversationalist. He have plenty things to said. He doesn’t hijack the conversation. He spent most of his time listen and ask about this particular topic. Today, I see CB not a starving artist but a modern man with old soul.

    I am grateful for this gift of our encounter. He left a strongest impression. CB became a role model for me to live my passion and purpose. CB being a spiritual and loving God. CB lived the gift God blessed him. CB’s time on God’s Green Earth prompt us to see that we need to stop going through the motions but to ask ourselves, “Why am I here on this Earth?” “What are my purpose?” “What can I do to contribute?” “What is real happy?”

    People’s testimony of meeting or/and an acquainted to CB speaks the volume of gift Chuck gave to people through his encounters. This generate many and many beautiful stories.

    Today I see his artworks through a different lens. I ask myself, “what is he trying to express through this art?” His artworks is not because he just paint on a whim. Each of his artwork is purposeful and deliberate.

  4. Trudy –
    what a beautiful story and insight into Chuck…….he was such an amazing individual and you did such a phenomenal job of sharing some of the MANY layers of Chuck. While I only had the fortune of meeting him, I was always amazed at how creative a soul he was. He was definitely “champ” in finding ways to share Deaf culture through his arts, talents and skills – and I was always awed by his work. His departure from this earthly body did indeed leave a hole that can never really be “filled” by another in the same way. Thank you for sharing your story and your relationship with him – reading it “brought him back to life for me” and helps me to continue to appreciate what a rare individual he was and what earthly gifts he left for us to always appreciate and enjoy.

  5. What a beautiful tribute you shared about your soul friend, Chuck Baird!!
    I’ve never met him but it feels like I know him through your true n deep friendship with him!! His integrity of heart was real n hard to find people like him in this world! His experience with God is real n I believe him! You’ve been blessed to have known him during his lifetime!!
    Thanks for sharing this with us!!

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