(WBIR - Huntsville) On the day the funeral bell tolled in remembrance of Howard Baker Jr., a wide range of eulogies and tributes rang out for a man whose lifelong accomplishments could fill a museum.
In fact, they do fill a museum in Huntsville. The Museum of Scott County at the campus of Scott High School features a room fully devoted to Baker's accomplishments.
"We have a room here that is a replica of the Baker law office operated by Senator Howard Baker's father and grandfather. We've filled it with different things that chronicle some of his life and his accomplishments," said Gary Sexton, a teacher at Scott High School.
But on the other side of the incredible three acre museum, a building devoted to the U.S.S. Tennessee boasts a behemoth brass bell you might not immediately associate with the deceased senator. However, it was Baker who managed a bit of subterfuge to bring this big piece of national history back to his hometown in Tennessee. Baker was more than a historical figure. He was a student of history who was proud of Tennessee's place in it.
"Howard Baker was instrumental in getting a nuclear submarine named the U.S.S. Tennessee," said Sexton. "The U.S.S. Tennessee namesake is still carrying on today, absolutely because of him."
At the ceremony to christen the new nuclear submarine, the U.S. Navy dusted off an old bell from the original U.S.S. Tennessee battleship that served in World War II.
"That bell was on the ship that fought more battles and shot more volleys in World War II than any other ship in the war," said Sexton. "The ship fought in so many battles. After the war, it was eventually decommissioned and sold for scrap metal."
Baker served in the Navy and knew the bell was a rare surviving artifact from a historic ship with a unique tie to his native state. The U.S.S. Tennessee was one of the first and only ships with a crew predominantly comprised of men from the state it was named for. Tennesseans truly served on the U.S.S. Tennessee.
Furthermore, the U.S.S. Tennessee played a vital role in our nation's military history. The ship took a direct hit while fighting Japanese aircraft during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The battleship bounced back to fight again in the South Pacific, where it braved an onslaught of Kamikaze attacks in ferocious battles. The boat ultimately played an integral part in the war effort that led the United States to victory.
Howard Baker made a spur of the moment decision that this Tennessee trophy did not belong in storage. It belonged in his truck.
"At the dedication of the submarine when the christening was over, he [Baker] asked one of his fellow Scott Countians who escorted him up there to get that bell loaded up on his truck and take it back to Scott County instead of back to the naval base where it was stored. Basically, he stole the bell is what he really did," laughed Sexton. "He felt the bell belonged here in Tennessee. It came back here to Huntsville where it has been for several years. It used to be in front of the courthouse. Now it's here at the U.S.S. Tennessee Battleship museum."
When the military figured out the bell was AWOL in Tennessee, the Navy allowed it to remain in Huntsville.
"It's kind of 'possession is 99 percent of ownership.' It belongs to us, but the Navy still technically owns the bell. We are required to do a lot of paperwork to keep the military informed about the bell's location and condition," said Sexton.
The museum is happy to have the bell, all thanks to a bold move by Baker to "borrow" a priceless piece of history. The bell resonates as an example of Howard Baker's devotion to history and his desire to always share that history with his beloved hometown.
"It's a solid brass bell. It's got a beautiful ring to it," said Sexton. "Howard Baker Jr. rubbed elbows with the most powerful people in the world, but still stayed true to his roots right here in Scott County, Tennessee."
With the bell on display for everyone to enjoy at the Museum of Scott County, that lasting legacy will ring true long after Baker's death.