Out of everything Jerry E. Baker achieved in his life, his profound generosity and willingness to share his success are the most laudable.
Baker, who founded the Downing Museum and the nearly 115-acre Baker Arboretum that surrounds it, died June 22, 2017. He was 86 years old.
In life, Baker was best known for the arboretum and art museum he created on his property at 4801 Morgantown Road. Walk past the arboretum’s manicured conifer trees or tour the museum’s display of the largest collection of the late Joe Downing’s art, and you’ll begin to grasp the breadth of Baker’s altruism.
In April 2006, Baker made a $15 million gift to Western Kentucky University including his home, art collection and arboretum – at the time the single largest gift by an individual to a public university in Kentucky. Baker continued adding to that gift, bringing it to $17 million. Following his death, Baker’s assets go to the Baker Foundation with WKU as the beneficiary. WKU will maintain the museum and arboretum through the support of the foundation.
John Paul Blair, WKU’s interim vice president for development and alumni relations, put it best when he described the depth of Baker’s generosity and legacy.
“His impact will go on forever as a result,” he said.
“No one has given more to WKU in our history financially than Jerry Baker.”
Baker’s life stands as an example for all of us. He shows us that, although everyone might not have his means, we can all give what we have to each other so we can all get to a better place.
When Blair recalls the character of Baker’s brand of giving, he remembers when Baker donated $100,000 to establish a scholarship for WKU’s women’s basketball program. At a reception before a basketball game, Blair said he asked Baker about his love for women’s basketball.
“I asked Jerry if he was a regular attender of the Lady Topper games, and he told me it was his first one,” Blair said, adding Baker made the donation to support a friend.
That unselfish generosity toward our friends is something we should all try to emulate in our daily lives.
Too often, we strive for success in our careers for our own sake. Baker never kept his success to himself.
After graduating in 1951 from Bowling Green Business University, which would later become part of WKU, he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force to fight in the Korean War. After returning home, he worked with a Louisville accounting firm for a year and went to work with his father at his newly purchased company – Southern Welding Supply.
The company’s industrial gases supplied cylinders used by medical offices, hospitals and industries, according to Baker’s obituary. Baker bought out his father in 1971 and then expanded the company into other Kentucky counties. He sold the company in 1986 to Airgas, which quickly became one of the largest distributors in the country. Baker remained on the board at Airgas as a regional executive in various roles until he retired in 2010.
Baker could have lived a more comfortable life and chosen to keep his well-earned success to himself. But that wasn’t the man he was. Instead, he created an arboretum and museum to share his passions with the public.
That gift to WKU is only part of his decades-long support of WKU and other local organizations. Other contributions include professorships in horticulture and music, as well as scholarships in horticulture, music, dance, art and athletics.
Baker’s story shows us that we all have something to contribute, no matter the size or our backgrounds, to make the lives around us better.
That lesson, as much as his beautiful arboretum and museum, will stand as his legacy.