Russell T. Baker Sr., 85, founder of real estate firm, advocate of open housing laws

October 10, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Russell T. Baker Sr., founder of the Russell T. Baker & Co. real estate firm and an advocate of open housing laws, died Thursday of heart disease at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 85.

Mr. Baker, who recently had moved into the Roland Park Place Retirement Community, had lived for more than three decades on Tunbridge Road in Homeland.

Mr. Baker's career as a salesman had an inauspicious beginning. After earning a degree in German from Hobart College in 1935, Mr. Baker took a job as a salesman with Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in New York City, where his boss told him he'd never become a successful salesman.

He promptly quit and moved to Maryland, where he took a job teaching German at the Severn School in Severna Park in 1937, and later helped manage the Bard-Avon School, said his son, Russell T. Baker Jr. of Columbia, a Baltimore attorney and former federal prosecutor.

From a one-room office in the Munsey Building on Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore, he began selling real estate in 1947, taking advantage of the post-World War II building boom and veterans' demand for housing.

By the 1980s, his firm, which had become the largest residential real estate brokerage in the area, could boast 500 full-time employees in 15 offices, with annual sales in the millions. In 1983, Mr. Baker sold his company to Coldwell Banker, but he continued to manage it until retiring in 1987.

"He was a worthy competitor, and when [he beat you], you didn't mind because you were beaten by the best," said James P. O'Conor, founder of O'Conor & Flynn in 1961, predecessor of today's O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.

"He was unquestionably the leader of our industry in our time. He was the gentleman we all looked up to. He was the role model. He set the standards, and we tried to emulate them," Mr. O'Conor said.

During the 1960s, Mr. Baker championed the cause of equal opportunity, supporting open and fair housing laws at a time when that idea was not popular with the Real Estate Board of Greater Baltimore, now the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"The board had earlier opposed it because they felt property rights were more sacred than human rights, that the owner's right to sell was the important thing," said Malcolm Sherman, a longtime friend and real estate consultant.

"When [Mr. Baker] was president of the board, he tried to get their voluntary cooperation and support of open-occupancy legislation on both the city, state and federal level," he said.

In 1965, Mr. Baker and the board urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to extend an executive order on equal opportunity in housing to cover conventional lending on home mortgages by federally chartered and insured institutions, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.

The board hoped the action would bring better housing for minority groups, preserve neighborhoods and stabilize real estate value. "It was the only real estate board in the country to take such a stand," said Mr. Sherman, who called Mr. Baker "a pioneer."

He described him as a "caring, compassionate human being who was deeply concerned about seeing that minorities could gain access to equal housing."

"Business associates came to his office and warned him that he would ruin his business if he kept up such advocacy," said Baker's son. "He stubbornly fought for it and didn't care if it ruined him."

Mr. Baker was named Realtor of the Year, and in 1987 was given the Realtor's Lifetime Achievement Award by the Greater Board of Baltimore Realtors.

Born and raised in Newton Lower Falls, Mass., the son of a soldier, Mr. Baker was reared in humble circumstances during the Depression.

He was a 1931 graduate of Ayer (Mass.) High School and, while attending Hobart on a scholarship, worked his way through college by waiting tables at a fraternity house.

"He never forgot what it was like to be on the bottom, and he always rooted for the underdog -- even in the World Series. That's why I think he was an ardent FDR-Truman Democrat," said his son.

He was an avid golfer and was a member of the Baltimore Country Club and the L'Hirondelle Club in Ruxton.

He was a communicant and former vestryman at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday.

In addition to his son, Mr. Baker is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Grace Hills Almond; a daughter, Elizabeth A. Baker of Baltimore; a brother, Walter Baker of Morgan, Utah; and four grandchildren.

Memorial contributions can be made to Jubilee Baltimore, 2000 E. Lombard St., Baltimore 21231.

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