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Michael J. Baker, former Baltimore parks chief and a congressional aide, dies

Michael John Baker, pictured in 1998 in Druid Hill Park, was named chief of Baltimore City Parks that year.
Michael John Baker, pictured in 1998 in Druid Hill Park, was named chief of Baltimore City Parks that year. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / XX)

Michael John Baker, the former chief of Baltimore City Parks who became an aide to U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, died of heart disease Nov. 12 at his Parkville home. He was 63.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Dumont Road in Timonium, he was the son of Dr. Frank William Baker Jr., a physician with a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology, and his wife, Ellen LaRue Keeney, a nurse. He attended Ridgely Junior High School and was a 1975 graduate of Dulaney High School.

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He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Pennsylvania State University in 1979. A lifelong nature lover, he worked at Yellowstone National Park before returning home and beginning a career in public service that would span four decades. He also attended and was later a counselor at Camp Wright, a nature camp where he spent time as both a camper and counselor in Stevensville on the Eastern Shore.

As a child, he tagged along with his aunt, Virginia Baker, a well-known and popular veteran staffer in the city’s Department of Recreation & Parks. He soon joined her department and rose to become chief of Middle Branch Park, which includes the Baltimore Rowing Club.

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“I grew up in recreation and then moved over to parks,” Mr. Baker said in a 1988 Sun story where he recalled the time his aunt dressed him as a clown and paraded him down Howard Street to promote bond issues for the department.

Michael John Baker was tasked with supervising the opening of Middle Branch Park.
Michael John Baker was tasked with supervising the opening of Middle Branch Park. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / XX)

“Virginia taught me never to be afraid of making a fool of yourself for a good cause,” he said.

He was given the task of getting the Middle Branch Park opened.

In a 1987 story, he said Baltimore residents needed to overcome any fear of the Middle Branch, which was then partially surrounded by industry and was polluted.

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“We see people walking out to their chests to crab every year in the Patapsco,” Mr. Baker said. “If you fall in from a boat, you won’t dissolve.”

He also said in the 1988 story: “We hired kids from Westport and Cherry Hill to plant trees and build an observation boardwalk and turned it into an amazing wildlife area. We’ve already seen birds there, like Tennessee warblers and bobolinks, that folks said wouldn’t return to the city for 20 years.”

In 1998, after working 19 years in his department, he was named chief of city parks.

“Beyond our nine major parks, our priorities will be to help the smaller parks, in the 1- to 4-acre range. Many can become sitting parks or community vegetable gardens,“ he said of his job, which involved supervising 50 employees and managing a budget of nearly $7.9 million.

Michael John Baker was an aide to U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Michael John Baker was an aide to U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

He was an early champion of the creation of Gwynns Falls Trail, a hiking and biking circuit through West and Southwest Baltimore. He worked closely with the Friends of Maryland’s Olmsted Parks & Landscapes to create an archive of municipal work in Baltimore done by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and Olmsted’s family.

After leaving the city government, Mr. Baker joined Sen. Mikulski’s staff for three years. In 2005, Rep. Ruppersberger hired Mr. Baker as his outreach director.

Mr. Baker traveled to events throughout the district on behalf of Rep. Ruppersberger.

“I’ve always considered my staff as a team, but we are really more like family,” Rep. Ruppersberger said. “Michael didn’t have any relatives in the Baltimore region, and so we’d have him over for Thanksgiving dinner and he loved playing with my grandchildren.”

The congressman also said: “Michael’s job required him and I to spend a lot of time together in the car, and I’m really going to miss those drives between Washington and Timonium. We talked about politics, of course, but we talked about family and life more. He was so interesting — he was a lifelong member of the Audubon Society and he knew everything and anything there is to know about birds and other wildlife. We bonded over our shared love for the Ravens, good food and complaining about the traffic.”

Describing Mr. Baker’s enthusiasm, the congressman said: “He loved going out to events in the community and representing me when I couldn’t be there myself. Everyone knew Michael and Michael knew everyone. People were drawn to his easygoing nature, his sense of humor, and his love of a little mischief.”

Mr. Baker made many friends and was a regular at the Battle Grove Democratic Club in Dundalk.

“He was a hard worker, he was loyal [and] he was honest,” Rep. Ruppersberger said. “He was a decent and kind man who dedicated his nearly four-decade career to bettering his community. And we’re all better for having known him.”

An avid birder, Mr. Baker belonged to the Audubon Society. He was an enthusiastic Penn State alumnus and joined fellow graduates at the Outer Banks.

“Within our family, he was everyone’s favorite uncle,” said his nephew, Christopher Busk of Farmington, Connecticut.

Survivors include two sisters, Kathleen Busk of Tannersville, Pennsylvania, and Deborah Baker of Summerville, South Carolina; two brothers, William Baker of Lynchburg, Virginia, and Robert Baker of Baltimore; and other nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held in the spring.

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