It was 1989 and hopes by Minneapolis park officials to win recognition from a national trade group for their system had been dashed more than once. But when Minneapolis was announced in San Antonio as a gold medal park system for the first time, Commissioner Tom Baker bolted up onto the National Recreation and Park Association stage.
“I’ve never seen him move so fast,” said Brian Rice, an attorney representing the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Thomas W. Baker, 71, who died Jan. 18 in Henning, Minn., served as a Minneapolis park commissioner between 1978 and 1998. He’s one of only 11 park commissioners to serve that long, and he served as board president five times. When a successor had to resign due to a job conflict, Baker returned in 2001 for six months until the next election.
Baker also worked at the Minnesota Department of Commerce for 25 years, eventually directing regulation of property, casualty and self-insurance. That followed earlier work as an insurance adjuster, a job that sometimes called him out in the middle of the night to board up windows in fire-damaged buildings, relatives said.
As a public official, Baker built a reputation as a uniter of people. “Tom was smart, kind, thoughtful. He tried to consider all points of view,” said Earnest Belton, who followed Baker on the board. “But the most important thing, he really cared for the parks and the employees.”
Baker also helped to diversify the board, steering labor endorsements toward Belton and another black commissioner.
He gained that influence as a foot soldier in what was commonly called the North Side DFL machine, a group of labor-aligned politicos. “I know very few people who have knocked on more doors than I have and Tom is one,” said his uncle, former state Rep. John Salchert.
Baker’s labor leanings, which Salchert attributed to a laborer grandfather, carried over to the Park Board. “The rank-and-file workers, the union, the treecutters, they knew when he was president they had a friend,” said Patricia Hillmeyer, a board peer.
Baker and Hillmeyer’s biggest impact was prodding for what became the Above the Falls plan to transform the upper riverfront. When elected board president in 1987, Baker articulated a vision for continuous park trails from Brooklyn Center to Fort Snelling. He was integral to substantial progress toward that goal. West River Parkway and trails were built from Plymouth Avenue N. to the Cedar-Riverside area during Baker’s tenure.
He also was a vigorous advocate for better North Side parks and strong policing. On his watch, acquisition of land for the long-delayed North Mississippi Regional Park was completed, trails were added there and a deal was struck with Three Rivers Park District to operate it.
Baker was born in Minneapolis, but his family spent much of his boyhood in the Dakotas, where his architect father took jobs. After his father died, Baker returned to the Twin Cities as a boarding student at what was then St. Thomas Military Academy in St. Paul, from which he graduated in 1962. He also attended the University of Minnesota and real estate school. He worked as a driver for then-Gov. Karl Rolvaag. Baker served on the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission before the Park Board.
After his 2009 retirement, he moved to Lake Blanche in Otter Tail County and the cabin his father built and Baker expanded, where he fished. He was married for nearly 48 years to his wife, Patti, who died two years ago. He is survived by one son, Bruce Paul Baker of Robbinsdale. Funeral services have been held.