RALEIGH, N.C. — Former Wake County Sheriff John Haywood Baker Jr., who was the county's top law-enforcement official for more than two decades, died at his home Wednesday. He was 72.
He leaves behind his wife, Juanita, of almost 50 years, two children and four grandchildren.
Known for his larger-than-life, 6-foot-7 stature and his booming voice, Baker was the first black sheriff in North Carolina since the Reconstruction and held the office from 1978 until 2002 when he lost to Sheriff Donnie Harrison by 2,200 votes.
He decided to run again for the office in 2006.
"I felt that the 24 years that I gave the citizens of Wake County was the best that I had, and I look forward to going into a new venture, and whatever that may be, I will give it the best that I have also," Baker said after his election loss.
Baker, a Democrat, was criticized at times for spending too much time in the office and not enough time in the field. In public, he was hard-charging and tough-talking. In private, many found him kind and gracious.
"Sheriff Baker was a big man, but he had a gentle heart," Harrison said. "He really looked after the youth of this county. I give him credit for a lot of things."
"I came into an office where he's done a lot of great things. He's going to be missed," Harrison added.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker called Baker a significant blessing to the county.
"He was a native son that never forgot his roots. He loved his hometown and its people," Meeker said in a statement. "While he was a most professional law enforcement officer, his compassion for the underprivileged assured that he saw each person as an individual, worthy of respect and dignity."
And Gov. Mike Easley said in a statement that Baker was "a giant" as a public servant and community leader.
"After a stellar professional football career, he decided to serve his neighbors and was an outstanding sheriff for Wake County. I am proud to have been his friend."
Baker grew up in the Oberlin community of Raleigh and attended Ligon High School. He graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1958. That same year, he was drafted 56th overall by the Los Angeles Rams.
Over the next 12 years, the defensive end/defensive tackle went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. He was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
One of the defining moments of Baker's sporting career came in September 1964 when the then-Pittsburgh Steeler tackled football legend Y.A. Tittle of the New York Giants, leaving him bloody and battered in the end zone. The tackle is the subject of a famous picture that became part of sports history.
In the offseason, he worked with the Raleigh Police Department as a youth counselor. When he left the NFL and returned to his hometown, he became the first black appointed to the state Parole Board, where he served eight years until being elected Wake County sheriff.
In many ways, Baker's competitive spirit from his football days carried on as a theme throughout his life as he took on a new game – politics.
During his tenure as sheriff, Baker helped create a program that allowed young jailed offenders to continue their education at the John H. Baker Jr. Charter School.
Baker and his late father, who was Raleigh's first black police officer, were inducted into the city's Hall of Fame last month. Baker was too sick to attend, but his family accepted the honor in his name.
"He was more than a lawman, he was an icon," said state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek. "He leaves a legacy of integrity, generosity and compassion that will long be remembered."