Harry Baker dies in Fresno hospice

Harry H. Baker, Jr., 87, president of Sierra Telephone Co., died early this morning (April 3) in a Fresno hospice.

Baker, a long time business leader, supporter of education, former county supervisor, and philanthropist to numerous causes, schools, and organizations in the Mountain Area, had been hospitalized since March 10, following a stroke in the Fresno County jail. He was transported to Community Regional Medical Center, and was transferred to a hospice earlier this week. He had been in jail since Sept. 24, awaiting trial for one count of committing lewd and lascivious acts with a female minor.

Born in Nipinnawasee, the WWII veteran bought the then Raymond Telephone (200 customers) from his parents, Harry Sr., and Marie Baker in 1950. The company’s name was changed to Sierra Telephone three years later. The once tiny company has since grown to more than 25,000 customers in Eastern Madera and Mariposa counties. In addition to Sierra Tel Business Center, Sierra Tel Long Distance, and Sierra Tel Internet, the company had a cellular presence in eight counties in Central and Northern California.

Baker’s business, education, and civic contributions, spanning nearly 70 years, were extensive, and his awards and honors were numerous including his involvement in establishing Yosemite High School nearly 40 years ago (serving as the district’s first board of trustees president) - serving 12 years (1986-‘98) on the Madera County Board of Supervisors - appointed to Madera District Fair Board of Directors by Governor George Deukmejian - charter member of Eastern Madera County Chamber of Commerce - 1980 chamber Man of the Year - 1995 California Telephone Association’s Distinguished Service Award - 1996 Madera County Muscular Dystrophy Humanitarian Award - 1997 Mariposa County Unified School District Education and Partnership Award - 2007 California Communications Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Baker loaned the funds to a committee working on getting an ambulance for Oakhurst in 1964. The 10-year-old Cadillac ambulance was purchased from the City of Reedley, and Baker himself picked it up and drove it to Oakhurst over Deadwood Mountain with red lights flashing and siren screaming.

Baker played a major role in establishing the Oakhurst Community Park by leasing 4.5 acres of Sierra Telephone property at $1 a year to the park committee on April 14, 1982.

Baker was the benefactor of Yosemite High School’s gymnasium and swim complex, both named after him, and his contributions over the years helped keep many organizations in the black, including the Oakhurst Elk’s Lodge, and the Sierra Historic Sites Association.

Sierra Telephone has always been a major sponsor of almost every major event in the Mountain Area and beyond.

Baker spent the last five years of his life entangled in the court system, after being arrested on Oct. 5, 2009, on one count of lewd and lascivious acts with a female minor from an incident that allegedly took place in a Fresno hotel room in May, 2007. From the time of his arrest, Baker claimed his innocence.

He was in jail since Sept. 24, when Fresno Superior Court Judge Jonathan Conklin ordered him there for missing two court dates and not keeping court-ordered appointments with two psychologists to determine his competency to stand trial. Attorney Roger Nuttall had contended that Baker was suffering from dementia and other ailments that prevented him from assisting in his defense. In December, a jury found Baker competent to stand trial on the felony charge - a trial that was never to be.

A prepared statement from Sierra Tel, released Friday, said: "Harry's generosity, wit, and dedication to the company and community will be remembered warm heartedly."

A private family service is planned for Baker. In his memory, donations may be made to a Mountain Area non-profit organization of your choice.

- Staff Report