Local News

Family, Friends Say Final Goodbye to 'Big John'

Posted November 5, 2007 5:31 a.m. EST
Updated November 5, 2007 9:07 p.m. EST

— 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.