Obituary: Donald Baker, University of Minnesota climatologist

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2014 - 8:06 PM

Any Minnesotan who has ever discussed the weather probably got a few talking points from Donald Baker.

A longtime professor at the University of Minnesota, Baker was also Minnesota’s first state climatologist, who helped establish the state’s renowned network of 2,000 precipitation observers and helped write a series of 16 Minnesota climate studies that are still available on the climatology website, climate.umn.edu.

“I consider myself lucky to have had him as a mentor,” said well-known university Extension climatologist Mark Seeley, whom Baker recruited and hired in 1978.

Baker died Monday at age 90. He had been in ill health for several years, said his son, William.

Those who worked with Baker described him as a gentleman scholar, with a deep passion for climate dynamics and data. William Baker said that on road trips, his father, who taught climatology in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate, often described in detail the quality and geologic history of the soils they were passing.

Baker’s grandparents owned farmland in Iowa, and he developed his interest in soils on visits to the farm in his youth. He continued to visit often and make decisions on farm operations in recent years, William Baker said.

William Baker also confirmed that his father wore a tie around the house on Saturdays, and at least once mowed the lawn wearing one.

“He was the most dignified and graceful man I ever met,” said state climatologist Greg Spoden. “He was everything you’d expect from a professor.”

But he also continued to wear proudly a military jacket with his nickname, “Stormy,” on the back, said assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay.

Colleagues said Baker’s key piece of scholarship was a 1975 study that developed a method to make temperature readings taken at different times of day comparable, which made readings by thousands of volunteers more scientifically valuable.

Baker served as an Air Force climatologist in both World War II and Korea, and met his wife, Jacqueline, while serving in Paris just after World War II. Otherwise, he spent virtually his entire life in St. Paul, graduating from Murray High School in 1941 and earning bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Minnesota.

He established the climate observatory on the U’s St. Paul campus in 1960, including a rare, 12-meter deep soil temperature probe that continues to yield data.

Former Gov. Rudy Perpich honored him in 1984 with a certificate of recognition for pioneering research into the state’s wind energy potential. The U’s College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2005, for his 37 years on the U faculty.

“He did his research, he did his teaching and he did his public service, and he did them all very well,” said Dick Skaggs, retired U geography professor who collaborated with Baker in the classroom and in research.

Baker was preceded in death by his wife, Jacqueline. He is survived by his son, William, and one grandson, James.

A visitation is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday at O’Halloran & Murphy Funeral Home, 575 Snelling Av. S., St. Paul. Funeral services have been scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at St. Anthony Park United Methodist Church, 2200 Hillside Av., St. Paul, with burial at a later date in Wellman, Iowa.

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