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Family, Friends Say Final Goodbye to 'Big John'

Posted November 5, 2007

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— More than 500 mourners, including family, friends and community members, paid their final respects Monday to Wake County's former sheriff, John Baker, who died from a lengthy illness Wednesday at the age of 72.

Known as "Big John" to some for his towering stature and booming voice, a number of prominent local leaders spoke at the two-hour service about the man who served for 24 years as the county's first black sheriff.

"He never made you feel small," state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meeks said. "In fact, he enlarged you by his very presence."

Former Gov. Jim Hunt said he knew from the time he met Baker that he made a difference in North Carolina and the community.

"John Baker was a man who changed things, a great big strong man of character," Hunt said.

Former state House Speaker Dan Blue compared Baker to the Robert Frost poem, "Road Less Traveled."

"He took roads no one had taken," Blue said, referring to Baker's career as a politician and the first black sheriff elected in Wake County.

During his tenure as sheriff, Baker helped create a program that allowed young jailed offenders to continue their education.

Baker's daughter, Jonnita Baker, shared the private side of her father.

"He has been my best friend, my rock," she said. "I don't know how I could have made it as far as I have without him."

Hundreds lined up Sunday for a wake to remember a man who meant so many things to so many different people.

"He stood 6 foot 7, weighed in at over 300 pounds and wore a size 17 shoe, and the only thing that could surpass his stature was his incredible heart and compassion," said friend Steve Thanhauser.

"He always had something funny to say," said friend Lawrence Lester.

Lester knew Baker long before Baker's NFL career as a defensive lineman. He went to high school with the man who would become Wake County's sheriff and keep the job for more than two decades.

"Pinning a badge on him, it didn't change him. He was still John," Lester said.

"I've always admired him. He played a role in this community that I think is appreciated in recent days as people talk about not just the law enforcement role, but the role with young people," said U.S. Rep. David Price.

Baker did not just mentor young people. He also mentored budding politicians.

"Anybody who was starting out in politics around here that had any sense at all went to talk to him," Price said.

Although Baker was known as an athlete, a politician and sheriff, many say those successes did not measure his legacy.

"If the report card of anyone's life is the legacy that they leave behind in family, in friends, in people, that they did positive things for, then Sheriff John Baker is the valedictorian," Thanhauser said.

Baker is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren. State flags at all Wake County buildings, including the courthouse, have been flown at half-staff since Thursday in Baker's honor.

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  • nisa-pizza Nov 6, 2007

    Sunburnmenot
    Reconstruction is a huge benchmark. Before then in 1865 blacks were considered property and in some cases not human. It took over 113 years later, but he was the first black ELECTED sheriff in the state.

    I've lived in NC most of my life and around the time he was elected NC was considered a very backward and prejudiced state, (before the RTP jump started the Triangle then the state). We ranked right down there with AL., Miss. in literacy.

    No more than 40 miles away in Smithfield off of Hwy 70 at a major intersection in the mid-70's was a billboard saying that Smithfield was the proud home of the KKK. (Hoods, horses and all were on it)

    So yes, it was quite a feat for him to be elected during those times and stay in office for decades.

    Since Raleigh was just forward thinking enough to elect Baker, that may have helped some companies see NC (Raleigh) wasn't as backwards as some people feared. No new company would've wanted or needed that volatility.

  • AKA PikeMom Nov 6, 2007

    Let's move on already...geezzz
    Let's talk about Juanita...........hmmmmm

  • ladyblue Nov 6, 2007

    It seems like I can remember Big John forever. He was a force to be reconed with in office. He had a lot of respect from his workers as well as the residents of Wake county. I am sure he will be missed.

  • talkabout Nov 6, 2007

    I met him twice. yes he was a nice guy..but ALLOT of people are nice, but you don't read about them for 3 days after they die. Yes he was a public servent, and we paid him to do a job and he did it. ALLOT of people get paid to do jobs, but you don't read about them. My point, we are ALL imporant and we ALL make Impacts on people's lives every day and we ALL deserve the attention this man got as others before him have as well. God speed to him and his family, but let's now MOVE ON!

  • undefeated Nov 6, 2007

    I met him once shortly after he became sheriff, and we were in one another's company for several hours. He was a true giant gentleman with loads of charm and intelligence.

  • JoCo-nurse Nov 5, 2007

    myview... I had heard he had a stroke some time back.

  • Little John Nov 5, 2007

    No more pain, Rest in peace my brother.

  • Dalphine Nov 5, 2007

    I did not know Mr. Baker but from the comments that I have read, he was a wonderful person with compassion for people. You do not find public servants like Mr. Baker anymore. Law enforcement is a rough career but he did his job well. He took the high roads, the ones that most people avoid. Rest in peace and may God bless the Baker family.

  • Here kitty kitty Nov 5, 2007

    Somebody help me out since I'm not originally from North Carolina...why do they keep referring to him as the first sheriff since Reconstruction? Was there a black sheriff somewhere in NC history before then? Is Reconstruction a benchmark of some sort...why not use a date instead? Just wondering..........

  • SHELLYGIRL Nov 5, 2007

    BIG GUY, you touched my heart in a very special way and I will never forget the love that you extended towards me and my children. You WILL ALWAYS be remembered in our hearts and be kept in our prayers. To God be the Glory......

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