HOME

TO ADVERTISE

TO SUBSCRIBE

JOBS WITH US

  

The WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER



Tom Baumker

Tom Baumker of Fort Pierce loves to shoot wildlife. Known as the “Eagle Man,” Baumker custom built the rifle stock he uses for his 500mm lens. GREG GARDNER PHOTO

BY GREG GARDNER

Soldier, sheriff’s deputy, firefighter, forest ranger are just a few of Tom Baumker’s occupations during his 76 years in Fort Pierce.

But the job he loves most is photographer with his greatest joy stalking one of his favorite secret locations for even better images of bald eagles. Every day he takes his camera out looking for some rare wildlife, capturing at least 100 images on average.

Baumker was given his first camera when he was 7 years old. “It was a German pop-out camera and my mom told me to always keep the sun at your back,” Baumker said. “The Hills (family) had a lab where you drove in Sixth Street and out Seventh Street. “It cost 15 cents to develop a roll of 12. I used ASA 60 (ISO film speed) which was real slow back then. In high school we used Tri-X 200, which was much faster.”

“Tom Baumker, apparently born to hold a camera, has patiently accompanied me through days of back-to-back appointments in which he drew out, with his lens, the best in our legendary subjects,” said Jean Ellen Wilson in the acknowledgements of her book, Legendary Locals of Fort Pierce, which calls him The Eagle Man on his page. Baumker has become a kind of curator at the Bud Adams History Center inside the P.P. Cobb building in downtown Fort Pierce.

As a child growing up, Baumker learned drawing and painting from A.E. “Bean” Backus, Fort Pierce’s most famous Florida landscape artist.

“We became friends and later we had breakfast together for years,” he said. “He said I was born with an eye for composition and I automatically had it while the other kids had to learn it. That meant a lot to me coming from him.”

Before joining the Army, Baumker sold clothes at Rubin’s in downtown Fort Pierce, worked at two Winn-Dixies and a local market, delivered the The Fort Pierce News Tribune by bicycle and loaded fruit from his family’s citrus groves. He was a commercial net fisherman who at one point was selling 200 pounds of bait fish a day to other locals. Today, he makes his own jigs and plugs, also weaving from scratch three 11-feet by 22-feet, 3-inch stretch-mesh cast nets.

While he was at St. Anastasia High School, Baumker was mentored by local photographer Mac McNulty, who later died in the collision of two planes at the Fort Pierce Airport. Baumker worked as a stringer photographer for The News Tribune before he enlisted in the Army.

His hand-eye coordination may have saved his life by keeping him from being sent to fight in Vietnam. During the beginning years of the Vietnam War from 1961-66, Baumker would travel the country as the No. 3 shooter on the Army’s 10-man rifle and pistol team. “When they found out I could shoot, they put me on the team,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Baumker, who is related to the town’s namesake Lt. Col. Benjamin Pierce, has a way of being in the right place at the right time. By his count, he has saved the lives of 14 people and a dog – from drownings, fires and car accidents. That history began when he was a teenager sleeping at the family house on a spoil island in the Indian River. His future sister-in-law burst into the room and cried out her friend was drowning. Baumker raced to the river, jumped in and rescued the girl.

As a forest ranger, Baumker drove a bulldozer, fought fires and helped build many of the observation towers found in Indian River and St. Lucie counties. His crew once raced to the scene of an accident where a state forestry truck had gone into a canal. Baumker dove in only to discover the driver was gone. After being badly stung by bugs and mosquitos in the canal, he got out to find the driver standing on the bank.

“He had gone and changed out of his wet clothes and was standing there in dry clothes so I was pretty angry,” Baumker said.

Driving down Old Dixie Highway on another day, ranger Baumker spotted a house fire, called it in and then rescued a dog inside while the distraught owners looked on. He crawled under the smoke, found the dog, broke the leash from where it was tied and brought him out.

Several days a week Baumker stops by the downtown Pot Belli Deli, where just about everyone seems to know him and comes over to say hello. He is an unfiltered master storyteller and the customers eat up his tales of old Fort Pierce.

Baumker also was a propane gas installer with an FBI clearance to work on Jupiter Island mansions. At Piper Aircraft in Vero Beach, he worked as a troubleshooter for the whole assembly line. One day when a hole was drilled in the wrong place on a wing, Baumker sent an employee on a wild goose chase throughout the massive plant looking for a “hole mender.” He worked as a welder and as a carpenter, helping build many of the homes at the Panther Woods subdivision.

For several years, he worked for the Navy as a civilian fire marshal at Andros Island, Bahamas. As the maintenance superintendent for 10 years at Harbor Branch, Baumker helped design modifications to the submersibles used for undersea exploration.

“He sees a need and comes up with an answer,” said Jim Moses who has known Baumker for 25 years – since they met at a Treasure Coast Bottle Club meeting. They both volunteer at the Bud Adams History Center, where Moses marvels at Baumker’s skill sets.

“He is always coming in with something new,” Moses said. “He came up with a way to hang pictures from the ceiling without using wall space. He is innovative, good at getting things done and he’s really good at getting old photos and restoring them. Tom is an interesting good old boy to talk to. He tells stories about the old-timers like they were still here. I call him the nature sniper because he is always lying somewhere in the woods trying to get the best shot of an animal in the right light.”

When Baumker came home recently from a photo shoot, a neighbor boy told him a bald eagle had just landed on his mailbox. “It is about time an eagle came to see me,” he said. Baumker remembers when two boys went skinny-dipping at their favorite swimming spot. He and his brother hid their clothes and never stopped laughing as the two boys scampered the one mile home with palm fronds covering their front and backsides.

“It was so much fun growing up here,” Baumker said. “It has changed so much, but the people are pretty friendly. People are caring here. There is always someone who can help you or someone you can help.”

To view more of Baumker’s photography, go to the websites for Fine Art America, RedBubble or Viewbug, where he was voted in the top 10 percent out of 450,000 photographers who post work on the site.



TOM BAUMKER

Age: 76
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Occupation: Wildlife and commercial photographer
Family: Wife Regina; stepson Leon; son, Michael; six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren
Education: Indian River Community College, Fort Pierce, welding and metallurgy
Hobbies: Weaving large cast nets and woodcarving
Who inspires me: “Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton was the man who built the camera that stopped a bullet in mid-air coming out of a gun. I met him at Harbor Branch (Oceanographic Institute) and to me it was like meeting Albert Einstein.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I know 20,000 people in St. Lucie County and I am on Facebook with 1,600 people.”