Former state Sen. Walter M. Baker, who had served in the legislature representing the upper Eastern Shore for more than two decades and also had been a Cecil County attorney, died Tuesday of complications from diabetes at Christiana Hospital in Delaware.
The longtime Elkton resident was 84.
"Walter was a lifelong Democrat. He was from a large family that was rural and poor, and he grew up with a great sense of values," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He was conservative, and loved the Eastern Shore and reflected its conservative values."
The son of farmers, Mr. Baker was born and raised on the family farm near Port Deposit. During his senior year at Perryville High School, from which he graduated in 1944, he worked on the farm and drove a school bus.
Mr. Baker's early years were characterized by hard work. He was a barracks clerk for the Maryland State Police from 1944 to 1945, and then for the next two years was a Coca-Cola salesman. He then opened a garage, where he made his living repairing automobiles.
He enlisted in the Army in 1950, and served in Europe as a staff sergeant. After being discharged in 1953, he enrolled at Washington College on the GI Bill of Rights and earned a bachelor's degree.
He worked his way through school driving a taxi and a charter bus. He then worked as an insurance claims adjuster while attending the University of Maryland School of Law, from which he graduated in 1960.
Mr. Baker established a general law practice in Elkton and in 1961 was elected state's attorney for Cecil County, a position he held until 1965.
"Walter meant a lot to Elkton, Cecil County and the upper Eastern Shore. He did a lot and was very well respected," said Dwight Thomey, a partner in the law firm of Baker & Thomey, who was hired by Mr. Baker in 1975.
"He was someone who had a lot of wisdom and good common sense, and served the area and the state of Maryland well," said Mr. Thomey. "And during the 1970s, he was one of the best-known trial attorneys around, and could do both civil and criminal cases and was very effective at it."
In 1978, Mr. Baker was elected to the Maryland Senate.
"The district is five counties, Cecil, Queen Anne's, Kent, Caroline and Talbot counties, which makes it very difficult to serve and kept Walter always on the road," said Mr. Miller. "But he was very attuned to the district's needs and represented the classic Eastern Shoreman's values."
From 1987 to 2003, he served as chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, one of only four standing committees in the Senate.
Some of Mr. Baker's other committee assignments included the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules and Practices, the Rules Committee, Executive Nominations Committee and Insurance Reform and Oversight Committee.
During his tenure in the Senate, Mr. Baker earned a reputation as a swing voter and for being tough but fair.
His favorite saying was, "The only good bill is a dead bill," and it was said that he had a drawer, filled with bills he had opposed, to prove it.
A 2002 article in The Baltimore Sun characterized Mr. Baker as being a "titan" yet at the same time "irascible."
"He was very pleasant person but was always straightforward and firm in his convictions," recalled former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides. "He was extremely conservative but was very efficient and represented Cecil County well. He served honorably and well, and today, he would not have been a Democrat."
"Some people thought he was gruff at times, but he had a heart of gold and always wanted to help people," said Mr. Miller.
For a decade, Mr. Baker had been the legislature's most powerful gun-rights advocate, a stance he reversed in 1996 when he supported then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan that would make it more difficult to purchase weapons in large numbers and sell them to criminals, and also required background checks in private gun sales.
He also spoke out against a 1998 referendum that would have allowed slot machines and opposed casino gambling, which he said led to higher crime and addiction.
"Casino gambling may have some short-term beneficial advantage, but in the long run, it's bad for Maryland," he stated in the Guidebook to Maryland Legislators, 1999-2002.
Mr. Baker was responsible for procuring the funds for a streetscape project for Elkton's Main Street that also included replacing a bridge over Big Elk Creek. In 2000, he was named Elkton Citizen of the Year.
He was defeated for re-election in 2002 by Republican E.J. Pipkin, in what The Sun reported as "the toughest fight of his political career."
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He returned to practicing law on a somewhat limited basis and enjoyed playing golf. He also kept his contacts in Annapolis and enjoyed meeting with former staffers and legislative colleagues.
"Walter and his old staff would visit and gather for lunch," said his wife of 57 years, the former Jean Charsha. "It was a very full life."
A Mason, Mr. Baker was a 50-year member of Harmony Lodge and Nur Temple. He was a member of American Legion Post 135 in Perryville, VFW Post 6027 in North East, Elkton Rotary Club and the Moose and Elks.
He was also a member of the Chantilly Country Club in Rising Sun and the Newark Country Club in Newark, Del.
Mr. Baker was a member of Elkton United Methodist Church, 219 E. Main St., Elkton, where services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Also surviving are a son, Cecil County District Judge Stephen Baker of Elkton; a daughter, Nancy Brown of Elkton; three brothers, Raymond Baker of Garland, Texas, and George Baker and John Baker, both of Perryville; three sisters, Elinor Harris and Ethel Atkinson, both of Perryville, and Virginia Coleman of Gloucester Point, Va.; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.