Forest Hills neighbor Charles Robert Baker was seated in his chair, settling in for an afternoon of college football, when his wife walked into the room and dropped a newspaper on his lap.
The paper was folded to a page that read: “Ever dream of writing the Great American Novel? How about the Great American Christmas Story?”
The ad asked readers to submit an original, fictional Christmas story that, if selected, would be published in the paper’s holiday edition.
“Enter,” Baker’s wife said before leaving the room. He won that year, the year after and the year after that.
His stories about Thomas Hardy Godwin, a young boy who grows up in the White Rock Lake area during the 1950s and 60s, were so beloved by readers that the editor canceled the contest and ran Baker’s stories each November for the next seven years.
When readers first meet Thomas, he is a 7-year-old boy whose troubled childhood changes for the better. Each story follows Thomas as he grows a year old and prepares for new relationships, challenges and adventures.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” Baker said. “Charles Dickens has always been my hero. His Christmas stories were the ones that inspired me, and Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory.'”
Thomas’ story came to an end in 2008, and Baker went on contribute more than 30 literary biographies to Scribner’s reference collections: American Writers, British Writers, American Writers Classics and British Writers Classics. He also wrote nine essays on the life and work of various authors that were published in The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature.
After retiring as a cataloger in The Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University, he compiled his Christmas stories into a book called “Christmas Then,” which was published in October 2019.
“I have copies of the stories in newsprint, but they’re starting to fall apart,” Baker said. “My daughter said I should put them in a book that will last a little bit longer, so that’s what I did.”