Friends Remember Baker’s 'Incredible Heart, Compassion'
Posted November 4, 2007 9:40 a.m. EST
Updated November 5, 2007 5:23 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — A wake was held Sunday evening for John Baker, who served as Wake County sheriff for more than two decades.
Baker, who passed away Wednesday at his home after a long illness, was the first black sheriff in North Carolina since Reconstruction. He served from 1978 to 2002.
The last weeks of Baker's life were filled with people visiting his hospital room to thank him for all he had done, friends said.
"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 was loved by everyone," said high school friend Lawrence Lester. "Everyone loved him. He was a giant, not only on the field [and] in the classroom, he was just a fine, fine fellow."
Baker's funeral will be Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Matthews AME Church at 1629 Bennett St. in Raleigh. The public was invited to attend both the wake and funeral services. Baker will be buried at Carolina Biblical Gardens on Creech Road in Garner.
State flags at all Wake County buildings, including the courthouse, have been flown at half-mast since Thursday in Baker's honor.
"Sheriff Baker was a great man and a great leader. He gave Wake County the best years of his life, and all our citizens are indebted to him. Sheriff Baker's compassion and leadership will never be forgotten," Tony Gurley, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said in a statement.
Baker grew up in the Oberlin community 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 and tackle played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. He was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
In the off-season, he worked with the Raleigh Police Department as a youth counselor. When he left the NFL, he became the first black appointed to the state Parole Board, where he served eight years until being elected sheriff.
Known for his larger-than-life stature and his booming voice, Baker held office 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 said they found him kind and gracious.
Baker is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.