On school nights, Sally Baker hits the books.
Her husband of 51 years, Walt, fixes them both a quick meal, then busies himself until Sally finishes her homework. It's not exactly how he expected to be spending his golden years - but he couldn't be happier.
"I'm sleeping with a college co-ed, which I never thought would happen at this point in my life," said Walt, still captivated by the sassy redhead who stole his heart a half-century ago.
The Bakers, both in their 80s, began working in television when it was black-and-white. They created local programming in Orlando, Fla., Peoria, Ill., and Los Angeles. The mantel in the living room of their Boise home glimmers with six gold Emmy statuettes.
Sally became known in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s for her children's shows "Hobo Kelly" and "The Land of Frooze." A half-century later, she's still getting fan mail - even occasional visits.
One woman who traveled to Boise from California a few years ago treated the Bakers to dinner and sent a thank you card when she got home.
"Even though 40 years have passed ... you have the same face and eyes, and the same beautiful spirit I connected to when I was 3," she wrote. "You were a shining star in a violent, alcoholic childhood."
Sally is happiest when she's working, and that hasn't changed with age, Walt says. So it wasn't a surprise when she decided she wanted to turn stories from her "Hobo Kelly" days into children's books - and go back to school to learn to illustrate them.
Her quest was embraced by graphic arts instructor Brian Zimmerman, who let her sit in on a class at Stevens-Henager College before she enrolled.
"I fell in love with her immediately," Zimmerman said. "How can you not? She's such a warm, inviting person that really welcomes people into her life."
CAN AN OCTOGENARIAN KEEP UP?
The average age of Steven-Henager students in Idaho is 28, a school official said. Those who know Sally say she won't have any trouble keeping up with her classmates.
"That woman has an awful lot of energy," said D.L. Evans Bank vice president and Vista office manager Jim Renell, who will succeed her as president of the Boise Exchange Club.
During Sally's tenure as president, the group focused on bullying and child abuse. Renell said she initiated efforts for radio PSAs on shaken-baby syndrome, and she even joined a group that spoke to prisoners about the issue.
"She's been a dynamic breath of fresh air since she came on as a member. She's a hard person to say 'no' to, and her enthusiasm just spills over," Renell said.
"If there was a few more Sally Bakers in any community, sparks would fly," he said. "Things get done with Sally."
REMEMBERING SMOKE SIGNALS
Sally grew up all over the country. Her father trained racehorses and the family moved often.
Her mother, who was a singer and dancer with Broadway's Ziegfield Follies, spent a lot of time with Sally going over school lessons in public parks. It is among her fondest memories.
"My mother instilled in me the need to learn more and more," said Sally, who has two grown daughters and three grandchildren. "I will continue to need to learn every day of my life."
She is planning to complete the course work for an associate's degree in graphic arts. "My husband jokes that by the time I get it, I'll only have 15 more years of working time," she said.
Said Walt: "I don't want her working beyond 100. That's when I'll put my foot down."
Sally's biggest challenge: the computer.
"I don't know spit about computers," she said. She enrolled in a beginner's class at the MacLife store.
Given Sally's inexperience with computers, it seems it would be easier to illustrate by hand. Zimmerman said that's rare these days.
"The last illustrator cartoonist that I remember hearing about who did everything by hand was Charles Schulz," Zimmerman said.
At a study session, Sally said, her fellow students were lamenting how much technology has changed in recent years.
She made a crack about remembering communication by smoke signal.
"I got a lot of high-fives," she said.
Sally's co-star in life keeps her laughing. Walt Baker is a jokester who loves to tell people that he was a former priest and his wife was a "mother superior."
Sally met Walt at an Orlando, Fla., TV station, where he was directing and producing a television medical drama called "With These Hands."
Sally worked on that show and a couple others, before moving home to Los Angeles.
Walt called her every day until he realized he might go broke from phone bills. He proposed marriage over the phone. The rest is history.
The Bakers landed in Boise about a dozen years ago, in part because their daughter, Kelli Sullivan, lives here. They left to spend a couple years in Dublin when Walt got a job handling programming in the United Kingdom for the U.S. market.
Walt calls himself Sally's chauffer and drives her to class every morning, then they go out to breakfast.
His advice to men who want to stay married for a half-century? Use these phrases: "Yes, dear," and "I'm sorry. I was wrong. I made a mistake, and I'll never do it again."
"We'll never be idle," said Sally, who dotes on her 128-pound Great Dane, Sky. "Don't sit back and let life pass you by."
Katy Moeller: 377-6413