We all know her brother, John. For a lifetime, we’ve sung his songs. In traveling galleries across the globe, we admire his single-line drawings. We smile at his quirky books of poetry and prose, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. But quietly, over in Liverpool, England, his sister, Julia Baird, is continuing the tradition of reaching out to others, despite a life marked by personal tragedy. Like John, Julia Baird daily turns pain into selfless acts of love. Quietly, through the Strawberry Field Project, Julia is reaching out to young people dealing with learning and social challenges, and she’s changing lives.
The physical building that inspired John Lennon to write “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1966 (released in Feb. 1967) was a large, elegant house and grounds that had, during John’s childhood in Woolton, England, been transformed into a Salvation Army Home for Children. In his childhood, John’s Aunt Mimi Smith took the boy to yearly receptions at Strawberry Field, designed to engender community support and funds for the good work done there. Years later, skiving off from Quarry Bank school, teenaged John and his mate, Pete Shotton, would clamber over Strawberry Field’s stone wall to enjoy hours of illicit independence from high school tedium.
Perhaps it was on one of those famous excursions that John — perched alone on a tree branch — mulled over the fact that he didn’t quite “fit in” with the mainstream crowd, didn’t “belong” to the accepted group of students and prefects who paraded through his suburban life. As an adult, Lennon expressed it this way: “No one — I think — is in my tree. I mean, it must be high or low.” John always knew that he marched to “a different drummer.” And sometimes, that hurt.
Today, there are still, Julia Baird explains, young people who are “on a limb that is either high or low” for mainstream education — students who don’t flourish in the traditional classroom, students who have much to offer if they are encouraged to use their talents and strengths wisely. So, in 2018, working in conjunction with the pioneering efforts of Salvation Army UK HQ and their North West Region, Julia helped raise awareness and funds that would magically transform the former children’s home into a cutting-edge learning center. Strawberry Fields became a place of hope for youth who feel they have no place.
Julia, who received her master’s degree in philosophy of education, has long been a teacher (as well as the acclaimed author of two books, Imagine This and John Lennon, My Brother). But in later years, her heart has led her to the instruction of special needs students, and she has found her calling. “It’s the most challenging work I’ve ever done,” Julia said in a recent interview with the She Said She Said podcast. “But when I see lives being transformed and hope being given to those who once felt hopeless, all of the work is worthwhile.”
The Salvation Army had originally acquired the stone house in 1934, and because of John Lennon’s 1967 hit song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the building’s exterior became a tourist attraction. But leaving the famous red iron Strawberry Field’s gates intact, the visionary group replaced the edifice with an innovative, transformative educational facility and a lovely reflection garden. Speaking at myriad events to highlight the need for such an impactful training hub, Baird kickstarted this miracle. She helped spearhead the sale of historic bricks from the aging home to make a difference in the lives of young people who would soon come “down to Strawberry Fields” for a second chance. “Today,” Julia said, “we work with young adults who face learning disabilities or social challenges. And we give them a way forward. One student, when recently asked to express what the Strawberry Field training center means in her life, stated: ‘Before, I was no one, and now, I am not.’ That is our mission.”
Like her brother, John, Julia Baird has faced stringent life challenges. When her mother, Julia Stanley Lennon, was killed by a drunk driver in July 1958, Julia and her sister, Jackie, were sent away to their Aunt Harrie and Uncle Norman’s home to live. Bereft, the two girls sought answers about their mother’s disappearance and were given very little information. The topic of their mother’s death was virtually taboo and remained so for years. It was a dark time that could either scar a child for life or jar him or her into pushing determinedly forward. For John and Julia, the life-altering tragedy quarried out the fighter in them both, and they opted to weave their pain into unforgettable beauty. John’s canvas was music, literature, and interactive art. Julia expressed her passion through teaching and touching young lives.
For John and Julia, their mother’s loss was pivotal. It placed them, quite abruptly, at a crossroads that led either to defeat or inspiration. They chose inspiration, and as Robert Frost once penned, it “has made all the difference.” Today, Julia Baird is the Director of Cavern City Tours, honoring the memory of her talented brother, to whom she was very close. But also, with great devotion, she works shoulder-to-shoulder with the superb Salvation Army staff at Strawberry Field. They work to find that perfect limb of security, acceptance, and hope for every young adult.
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo: Strawberry Field gate (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
For more information on the Strawberry Field Project, go to: Our story | Forever Strawberry Field (strawberryfieldliverpool.com)
For more information on Julia Baird’s book, Imagine This, Growing Up with My Brother, John Lennon, go to: https://juliabaird.co.uk/ and follow Julia on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/julia.baird.374
Thanks to Lanea Stagg who co-conducted the interview with Julia Baird.
To hear the “She Said She Said” interview that author Lanea Stagg of The Recipe Records Series and Jude Southerland Kessler of The John Lennon Series conducted with Julia Baird in February 2021, go to: https://shesaidshesaid.podbean.com/e/shesaidshesaid-talks-with-john-lennons-sister-julia-baird/