Ken Baldwin: Surviving Depression

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 21:49
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Ken Baldwin now sheds light on depression

This is the story of a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived.

But his story of survival is not about that jump. It is about how, with the help of his wife, he has survived a challenge much greater than a four-second plummet into the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay.

“Depression is like alcohol or tobacco addiction,” says Ken Baldwin, a 58-year-old Angels Camp resident. “I’m a depressive who’s not depressed right now.”

Baldwin is more than that. He is a loving husband, father and grandfather. He is a successful Career Technical Education teacher at Bret Harte High and a confident advocate for honesty and open communication. But he wasn’t always that way.

Shortly after marrying Ellen, his college sweetheart, Baldwin found himself working in a Bay Area job he hated.

“I would think, ‘Why am I doing this? What is my life all about?’ ”

Insecurity he had always suppressed came to the surface. “I took any criticism at work personally,” he says. “And the worst thing is, I hid my feelings. Even from my wife.”

In 1982, three months after the birth of their daughter Catherine, he made an unsuccessful attempt to take his life with sleeping pills. Ellen then knew the severity of Ken’s depression.

“The worst thing was,” he says, “we both decided not to talk about it. We were ashamed, petrified of what would happen if people found out I was suicidal … that I had tried to kill myself.”

Ken was able to change jobs, working next as an architectural draftsman in Stockton. Outwardly, everything appeared normal and happy, but the self-doubt remained.

“I mean, we’re talking white picket fence,” Baldwin says. “Beautiful house, wonderful child, wonderful wife. But in my mind, I was a total failure.

“It was a bleakness, a vortex of darkness,” he continues. “I couldn’t climb out and the pain was horrendous. Every day you wake up and say ‘Why, why, why? Why am I doing this? Please, just let me not wake up.’ And I was convinced my wife and daughter would be better off without me.”

On a sunny day in August 1985, Ken drove to work but couldn’t bring himself to go in. He turned around and headed for San Francisco and the bridge.

“I didn’t own a gun, and besides, I didn’t want my daughter to find me bloody or hanging. I wanted to be washed out to sea and never found.”

As he left Stockton, he felt great.

“I had made a definite decision and felt this is going to be the day when I won’t have to feel the pain, I won’t have to drag my wife and daughter down into my depth.”

Baldwin parked in the bridge lot and walked to the middle of the span. After checking to see no pedestrians were near and no ship was below, he counted down from 10 but didn’t jump. He counted down a second time, put both hands on the chest-high railing and vaulted over as if hopping a fence.

“I’m convinced I have two completely different lives – before the jump and after the jump,” Baldwin says today. “I saw my hands leave the rail, and that’s where the second life begins.

“I looked down and saw the water coming and said, ‘Oh shit, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.’ The bridge is just screaming away from me and my life – my present life – flashes before my eyes. I saw my wife, my daughter, my brothers, my mom, my dad … my dog. I saw my friends, and I felt, ‘I want to tell you I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this. This is wrong, completely wrong.’

“Unfortunately I was on my way down at the time.”

Bridge workers saw the fall, shot off a flare, and seven minutes later a Coast Guard lifeboat was fishing Baldwin from the water. Taken to Letterman Hospital, doctors guessed he hit the water cannonball style. The bottoms of both feet, his buttocks and a lung were badly bruised. A back pocket had been ripped away from his trousers, and he lost his wallet and his wedding ring.

Baldwin doesn’t remember hitting the water, but he does remember being on the boat and knowing he didn’t ever want to jump again. In the hospital, with a breathing tube down his throat and a drain tube through his chest, he remembers hearing doctors whisper he had only a 50-50 chance to survive the night.

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Snapshot of Baldwin with his daughter three years after bridge jump

He also remembers telling himself at that moment, “I’m going to live through this night, and I’m going to go on living.”

Ellen and Ken have been working on overcoming his depression for 30 years, and it’s a work in progress. In that time, Ken returned to college for a teaching credential, and the family moved to Calaveras County in 1993 when he began working at the high school.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Ellen confesses. “There were times during the first several years that I thought about leaving him. And for nearly a decade, if I called home and there was no answer, I couldn’t help but wonder if …”

But counseling for five months after the jump and a vow to be honest and open have brought them to where they are today.

“After the jump, there was nothing to hide,” Ken says. “I took off the mask. And there wasn’t one person who didn’t have a suicide story about an uncle, a cousin, a friend … everyone had a story.”

He realizes now that his father suffered from depression, but it was not treated or discussed, and daughter Catherine’s response to his regular check-ins about how she feels is, “Dad, don’t worry.” But of course, he does.

Ellen explains some of what they do to move forward.

“I didn’t realize it but Ken had always let me have my way. We never argued, but when I might say, ‘I want to do this or do that,’ he always went along. After the jump, we worked on him asserting who he was. Now we always try to meet in the middle.

“When a conflict comes up,” she says, “we take a step back, take a break and then return to each other with a fresher approach. Realizing what is important is part of it too, understanding that some small things just don’t matter.”

“She had to change who she was because of who I was,” Ken explains. “And she was willing to do that. Now we talk about everything.”

Each school year in October, Baldwin shares his story with a new crop of students in his classes. He does it no earlier because he doesn’t want the bridge jump to define their impression of who he is. And he wants them to know his real story is about overcoming a challenge like depression.

He tells them and everyone else, “There’s a hero in this story, and the hero is Ellen. She has been a rock. I would be dead without her.”

And why didn’t she leave Ken when the thought crossed her mind?

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Ken with his hero, Ellen

“I didn’t want to lose him,” Ellen explains. “He was my best friend and still is. And I couldn’t imagine someone else raising our daughter.

“Each night when I come to bed, I kiss him and say to myself, thank goodness he’s still here with me.”

Does Ken think about what he would have missed if he had not survived that 1985 jump?

“Every day,” he says. “My wife and I discuss those things all the time, and they mostly have to do with Catherine.”

He begins a list: “At Bret Harte, I was able to hand her her diploma. I saw her graduate from college, and I gave her away at her wedding. And I was there when our grandson Zachary was born.”

He smiles, laugh lines deep around his eyes. “I would have missed out on all of that.

“On the way home from seeing Catherine’s family in Pinole, Ellen will say, ‘That was a wonderful weekend. You know you never would have seen that if …’ And I let her finish. She deserves that.”

Find help for depression

FAN’s staff has compiled a comprehensive list of local, state and national resources available to help those dealing with depression, anxiety or thoughts of suicide. “Depression and Suicide Prevention Resources” can be found online in the Resource HQ section at seniorfan.com, and can be easily printed and shared with anyone who may benefit.


This story appeared as part of our cover story, Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 21:49
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5 Comments

  1. Brittni March 23, 22:06

    This is an incredible person. He was my drafting teacher at Bret harte. He was always open with us students about what happened that day and what he would have missed. He is an inspiration to me and many others that have grown from his class and knowing him as a person.

  2. Broyles March 24, 01:10

    Mr. Baldwin was a phenomenal teacher when I was at Bret Harte back in 2012. He taught senior seminar but I feel that wasn’t nearly as important a topic as the life lessons that he instilled on his students, myself included. Whether he sees it or not, he is a hero to a lot of people and I admire that. As a service member, I can only hope to have half the impact on others that he has had over the years. To that, Mr. Baldwin, I say thank you.

  3. Cathy March 24, 06:33

    Ken was my daughter Jillian’s drafting teacher and I truly believe an inspiration for who she is today and the career she chose (structural engineering ). He always supported his students and took the time to listen. Thank you for that gift Ken.

  4. Lisa March 24, 12:29

    Mr. Baldwin your story is very inspirational especially with people who are suffering from the same thing and are afraid and embarrassed to seek help, I myself have struggled with that as well. My husband and I met in your architetural drafting class in 1997 and are still together and have been married for almost 12 years. I truly do appreciate you sharing that courageous story of yours. I wish you the very best in life

  5. WitsEnd September 1, 23:25

    Impressive & intriguiging. Been searching a lot lately, of stories from folks like you & your survival. I only wish to be able to talk with (one of) you, face to face, not only encourage but to influence me. What’s the secret to keep Wanting to move forward, or simply move at times.

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