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Harry Baker dies in Fresno hospice

Harry H. Baker, Jr., 87, president of Sierra Telephone Company, died shortly after 2 a.m. April 3, in a Fresno hospice facility.

Baker, a long time business leader, supporter of education, former county supervisor, and philanthropist to numerous causes, schools, and organizations, had been hospitalized since March 10, after suffering a serious stroke in the Fresno County jail. He was transported to Community Regional Medical Center, and was transferred to a hospice facility early last 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 serve 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.

His numerous contributions to the Mountain Area and the county include 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 (1963 president) - 1980 chamber Man of the Year - 1996 Madera County Muscular Dystrophy Humanitarian Award - and 1997 Mariposa County Unified School District Education and Partnership Award.

Baker’s business, education, and civic contributions, spanning nearly 70 years, were extensive.

In 1964, with the Mountain Area’s population exceeding 3,600, Baker loaned $1,300 to the chamber committee working on getting an ambulance for Oakhurst. 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 made the Oakhurst Community Park possible by leasing 4.5 acres of Sierra Telephone property for $1 a year to the park committee on April 14, 1982.

He would send members of his construction team to the high country every year to cut down, and transport, and set-up and decorate the large tree that was used for the Oakhurst Community Christmas tree.

His contributions over the years helped keep many organizations in the black, including the Oakhurst Elk’s Lodge, and the Sierra Historic Sites Association.

“The members of Sierra Historic Sites Association have always been thankful to Mr. Baker for his on-going support for the development of Fresno Flats Historic Village & Park, said former association president Dwayne Turpin. “His support started in the early 1970s as he brought the historical Fresno Flats to life with both financial support and Sierra Telephone equipment. Over the years, he continued to strongly support our Heritage Day Parade and community dinner. We can not thank him enough for so many years of support in the effort of preserving the past for the future.”

Baker’s awards and honors were many including the 1980 Eastern Madera County Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year; 1996 Madera County Muscular Dystrophy Humanitarian Award; 1997 Sierra Historic Sites Association Heritage Days Grand Marshal; and Sierra Historic Sites Man of the Millennium in 2001.

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

No information has been released concerning the future of the company.

Industry leader

In 1950, Raymond Telephone served fewer than 200 customers, all with crank phones. Today, Sierra Telephone has more than 20,000 active access lines, a digital network, all underground facilities and hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable.

Baker was well-known among independent telephone company owners throughout the western United States.

For most of his career, Baker played an active role in regional, state and national telecommunications associations, providing a voice for the rural telecommunications industry. He was a founding member of the Western Rural Telephone Association in 1953, served as president of the association in 1967 and served on the board of directors for 14 years. He also served on the California Telephone Association Legislative Committee for 12 years.

He was honored with the 1995 California Telephone Association Distinguished Service Award, recognizing his effective leadership and advocacy, along with outstanding accomplishments and contributions to communities and state industry associations. In 2007, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Organization for the Promotion & Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. The award honors people who have worked to further the independent telecommunications industry throughout their careers.

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Sherry Colgate worked for Sierra Telephone for 35 years, beginning her career as a customer service representative in 1976 when the company had 40 employees, and retiring in 2011 as manager of customer service and corporate communications.

“He was a caring, generous employer,” Colgate said. “His concern for the satisfaction and well-being of his employees and customers were his No. 1 priorities. He exemplified honor, generosity and compassion.”

Colgate said Baker always made her feel like a very special member of his leadership team.

“Over those 33 years, Harry provided me a with a beautiful, safe, nurturing environment,” Colgate said.

Cleta Porter worked for the phone company for 32 years, retiring in 2010 as customer service supervisor.

“Not only Harry, but the entire Baker family always made me feel like I was part of their family,” Porter said. “I have heard many people say that Oakhurst wouldn’t be the same without Harry’s commitment to the community over years.”

Dannie Forbes worked for the phone company for 20 years - five of those years as Baker’s administrative assistant before retiring in 2009.

“I loved those years and all the great opportunities he gave me to expand my abilities,” Forbes said. “However, first and foremost Harry was my friend and a member of our extended family going back to 1978 when my sister Joy first became a Sierra Telephone employee, followed by my sister Peggy in 1984, and then me in 1988. He was fond of our mother and when she told him to be on time for dinner, he always was.”

First Yosemite High board president

Baker played a key role in forming the Yosemite Union High School District more than 40 years ago, and was the school district’s first board of trustees president for the high school that opened in 1976.

Baker, a former Boy Scout leader, was the benefactor of Yosemite High School’s gymnasium and swim complex, both named for him.

Former Yosemite High School board member and Madera County Board of Education President Sara Wilkins said Baker was a big supporter of education.

“He (Baker) had a lifelong love for education as witnessed by the thousands upon thousands of dollars he donated to students in scholarship money,” Wilkins said.

Barry Bartlett, director of counseling guidance, was the first credentialed person hired at Yosemite High.

“Mr. Baker, among others, was instrumental in the establishment of Yosemite High School, and he was one of the founding members and president of the scholarship foundation,” Bartlett said. “For many years his contributions were extremely positive for Yosemite High School. For those of us who have been around since the school’s beginning, we feel he has left a positive legacy to the school and the community.”

Board of Supervisors

Baker represented the Mountain Area on the Madera County Board of Supervisors for 12 years (1986 - 1998)

Stell Manfredi served as the county’s assistant chief administrative officer during Baker’s first term on the board and was CAO during Baker’s last two terms, working closely with Baker during those years, especially during the years Baker served as chairman.

“Back in the mid-80s, the county was transitioning to the new technology at the time - going from an old-fashioned switch board, and paper and pencil operation to computers, computerized phone system, and, although it sounds funny now, high speed fax equipment,” explained Manfredi. “Upgrades that has not been done in 20 to 30 years. With his business background, Mr. Baker was very savvy to the technology”

In his early days on the board, one of the largest accomplishments of the supervisors was the building of the new county jail to replace the overcrowded jail built almost 100 years earlier.

Towards the end of his last term, Baker was involved with the early planning of the Rio Meza area, where a number of subdivision developments near the Fresno River were in the early stages of planning. He, along with other board members, fought for the UC California campus (that eventually went to Merced), major Highway 41 improvements from Avenue 12 to the Madera - Fresno county line, and getting Children’s Hospital to locate in the county.

“Mr. Baker may have had challenging problems in his private life, but as a community and public figure, he encouraged government to look forward and provide for the future for the good of Madera county and for all the citizens that lived in the county,” Manfredi continued. “I always found him to be a well-intentioned public servant for the good of his district and the county as a whole. He would often come to see me after hours to share his ideas and make suggestions to me to improve county government. He always encouraged me, and never once did he try to intimidate me or tell me how to do my job. As far as the my long career in county government, Mr. Baker was one of the most professional and benevolent people I ever worked with.”

Gail Hanhart-McIntrye, a county supervisor from 1983 to 2000, called Baker an outstanding supervisor and effective voice for Eastern Madera County.

“He was a mentor, and I learned much from observing Harry maneuver his way through the county’s political waters … he was a marvel to watch in action,” Hanhart-McIntrye said. “He loved Eastern Madera County and worked hard to be sure it got its share of county resources. I often felt he got some of the valley’s share as well ... he was such an accomplished statesman. He fought hard for so many projects including Highway 41 improvements, and to convince the county to make the old Ahwahnee Hills boys school property a regional park, and to put a sheriff substation in Oakhurst. I hope he will be remembered for his accomplishments, and all his contributions to Madera County, especially the Mountain Area.”

Legal issues

Baker spent the last five years of his life entangled in the court system, after being arrested 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.

After his arrest, Baker said he was the victim of a blackmail-extortion scheme when the then 13-year-old, and her 27-year-old female cousin, secretly videotaped him, and tricked him into touching her. Baker knew the girl and her parents, and he maintained his actions were not sexual in any way, although he said he had paid a total of $250,000 to various members of a Gypsy family, who demanded the money to keep the tape from being released to authorities. It was Baker, and then attorney Richard Berman, who took a copy of the video to authorities.

The girl’s parents were the subjects of an investigation for child exploitation, child endangerment, and extortion, although charges were never filed.

Since his arrest in 2009, Baker’s trial was delayed multiple times due to health issues, including open-heart surgery and a tracheotomy.

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.

Ed Guzman, general manger of Sierra Ambulance, said Baker has done many wonderful things for the community and “it is sad his legacy will be tainted by these allegations late in his life.”

“Everyone needs to remember that Harry died an innocent man, never convicted of any crime,” Guzman said. “It’s too bad we’ll never know what the true story is with regards to those allegations.”

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