January 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rose Baker is a graduate of Monroe Elementary School.

That’s not a typo.

Monroe Elementary became Monroe Middle School in 1956. Baker doesn’t need much of an excuse to return to her alma mater. She’s there over 20 weeks a year on Saturday mornings giving swimming lessons in the school’s pool.

“My dad made sure everybody in the family knew how to swim,” Baker explains. “And I decided I kind of liked it.” She went on to a stint as a lifeguard at a now defunct neighborhood pool. She graduated from (the also now defunct) Tech High School before enrolling at Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska-Omaha), where she won two events at the first Nebraska College Invitational swim meet in 1964.

But by then, Baker was already five years into her work as a swimming instructor, which she began in 1959.

That, too, is not a typo…1959.

Ike was in the White House. Buddy Holly’s plane went down in an Iowa cornfield. Bridget Bardot was the hottest thing on two wheels. Bobby Dain crooned about menace named “Mack the Knife.”

Baker, now a retired Omaha Public Schools physical education teacher, is known for a firm-but-gentle teaching style that has become familiar to generations of Omaha families.

“My recollection of Rose is that she didn’t take anything from anybody,” says Brian Neu, who is now 33 years old. “Her no-nonsense style is the key to her success. We started our daughters (Reese, 5, and Morgan, 8) in lessons elsewhere and we didn’t seem to make much progress. Then I learned that Rose was still teaching and now my kids are with the same woman that taught me how to swim. Their progress with Rose has been just remarkable.”

“Swimming is for everybody,” says Baker, who was recently recognized with a place of honor in the Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. “I’ve also done a lot of classroom water safety work, but the pool is where it’s at. I want to be in the water. And so do the kids.”

What she calls her “tough love” approach is legendary in this city and, after more than a half century of splashing around in the water, she is equally taciturn in talking about the “why” of it all.

“Sure, it’s fun and rewarding and all of that,” she says, “but the main reason I do this, the main reason this is so important to me, is pretty simple. I don’t want to ever have to read about a kid in the paper…a kid who drowned because he didn’t know how to swim.”

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