John Haywood Baker Jr.
The image of a Southern sheriff may be intimidating ñ a stern man of the law with a zero-tolerance attitude. However, the late Wake County Sheriff John Haywood Baker Jr. stood in stark contrast to such stereotypes.
“He had a love for serving mankind,” said John Haywood Baker III about his father, the first African American sheriff in North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Baker, who passed away in 2007, spent most of his career serving Wake County, particularly focusing on its adolescents. “They were a big part of him and his message,” Baker’s son said.
During his 24-year tenure as sheriff, Baker was saddened by the number of young adults he arrested on drug-related charges, reinforcing his belief that education was key to improving the lives of incarcerated teens.
“He always said that a lot of people who go down that road don’t have an education and don’t have anything to fall back on,” his son said.
Rallying for an education program for imprisoned youth, Baker founded the John H. Baker Jr. Charter School in the county jail in 1997. “He wanted to break that cycle,” his son said. It was the first year charter schools opened in North Carolina.
Growing up in Wake County, Baker attended Ligon High School and N.C. Central University, playing football at both schools. After graduating in 1958, the 6-foot-7 Baker anchored defensive lines for the Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. (NFL veterans know that Baker’s image as a “gentle giant” came about after his playing days.)
During his 11 years in the league, Baker contributed to his community in the off-seasons as a youth counselor with the Raleigh Police Department. “He was well-respected by the citizens of Wake County,” said Sheriff Donnie Harrison, Baker’s successor. “And he’ll continue to have that respect even though he’s passed on.”
However, Baker’s influence and relationships stretched even farther. “It extends past Wake County and North Carolina in terms of people [he has] touched,” his son said. “And as a teacher and a coach, I’m serving the community in the same way he did.”