Don Baker recognition event honors a Lees-McRae legend

As Bobcat alumni from across generations gathered in Banner Elk for Homecoming 2022, faculty, staff, students, and community members joined them in Evans Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 30 to honor one man who positively impacted many of their lives. The “Donald R. Baker: Remembering a Lees-McRae Legend” event served as a time to reflect on the impact of this man who dedicated his life to Lees-McRae.

Over the nearly 40 years that Baker spent at Lees-McRae he held numerous positions across campus, including Director of Public Relations and Alumni Affairs, Sports Information Director, Athletic Director, Tennis Coach, and Vice President of Informational Services. After he passed away in 2021 the Lees-McRae community sought to hold a memorial service to celebrate the positive impact he had on the college as well as countless individuals, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic the event was delayed until now.

Bobcats young and old, including President Lee King, former Lees-McRae president Brad Crain, and Baker’s wife Joyce and daughter Nicole Baker-Crain gathered together for a heartfelt afternoon filled with stories, memories, and reflections on Baker’s life, personal legacy, and the mark he left on the college.

“A gathering like this not only validates the meaning that Don Baker had in our lives, but it enhances it by letting each of us see the bigger and broader impact of his life through the hearts, minds, and stories of others,” former Public Relations and Sports Information Director Scott Ballard said to the full auditorium, encouraging any and everyone to share a meaningful story about Baker.

Numerous speakers described the way Baker impacted their lives, saw potential within them, and set them on a path they would have never dreamed possible for themselves. Former athletes described their coach as a father figure, constantly motivating them to be the best version of themselves on and off the field, while colleagues spoke of the ways Baker worked to develop the college and make it the best institution possible.

“The Lees-McRae of today reflects the hard work and the great foundation that people like Don Baker left for us,” President Lee King said, describing the ways Baker’s impact made possible the developmental strides the college is pursuing today. 

According to Crain, when he appointed Baker to his Vice-Presidential role, Baker was placed squarely into the planning for and projection of the future of Lees-McRae. Among other things, Baker was involved in the transition of the college from a two-year to a four-year institution, became Crain’s go-to person for college sports questions during this transition, and illustrated a previously-nameless bobcat, bringing him to life as the college’s mascot Wily and the basis of the current Lees-McRae logo.

“He always had in mind something that would pull together people into a team, into a working group that could accomplish things,” Crain said. “Don was ferocious about his support for family and for Lees-McRae College, which was part of his family.”

This sentiment of Lees-McRae as Baker’s family continued throughout the afternoon as former student-athletes expressed the ways Baker’s coaching extended beyond the court and into daily life.

“Coach Baker changed my life, there’s no question about it,” former tennis player Bobby Hendrix ‘92 said, recounting the life skills Baker imparted on him and the other players, including mending fences, herding cattle, and baling hay. “He wasn’t just a tennis coach, he was a life coach to me, and almost like a father.”

Among all the many stories from family, friends, and colleagues, the prevailing message about Baker’s life was one of profound impact through encouragement, motivation, guidance, and love. Nearly every speaker shared the story of an experience with Baker that illustrated the way he changed their life for the better. 

“Coach Baker was building those bridges of love before people accepted other people who are not like them. He was a renaissance man, a legend,” former tennis player and coach Fish Gupton ‘70 said. “Because of him I have become the person I am. I have been able to go through my career touching the lives of friends, students, and family members, and because of Don Baker I see what he saw in me in so many others. He gave all of us gifts that we must now give to others. Let’s continue that legacy.”

Watch the entire “Donald R. Baker: Remembering a Lees-McRae Legend” event

Read about the rest of Homecoming Weekend 2022

By Maya JarrellOctober 05, 2022