George Baker, 84, lawyer who argued school prayer case


George W. Baker, a civic leader and accomplished Baltimore attorney for more than 50 years who argued the first school prayer case before the U.S. Supreme Court, died March 13 of complication from prostate cancer at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. The lifelong resident of Baltimore and Baltimore County was 84.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Towson, Mr. Baker graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School. He attended Loyola College, where he was active in the debate club and on the wrestling team and graduated on an accelerated track in January 1943.

At Loyola, he was surrounded by classmates who also entered the public arena, including former Baltimore County Executive Frederick L. Dewberry and legendary sportscaster Jim McManus (later known as Jim McKay).

"He had a very quick mind, a quick wit and was a very bright student," Joseph Smith, retired from telephone company management, said of Mr. Baker, his Loyola classmate. "Yet George never changed, never got aloof. He was George the whole way."

As his law practice expanded, Mr. Baker remained humble and always looked back to his Loyola roots fondly, said Smith, adding that "George attributed his success to the great Jesuit education he received at Loyola College."

In January 1944, Mr. Baker and Jane Burton Parr, a fashion designer, were married. They had met as teenagers through the Catholic Action Guild, a volunteer club that met at the old Cathedral School.

After living with his new wife in Norfolk, Va., for only one month, Mr. Baker was deployed to the Pacific with the Navy during World War II. An executive officer on the destroyer USS Ralph Talbot, Mr. Baker was one of the first American servicemen in Japan after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

His ship was the first to rescue survivors from the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945, leaving hundreds of men without lifeboats in shark-infested waters.

Mr. Baker also served with the Navy during the Korean War, from 1951 to 1953. He retired from the Naval Reserve as a commander.

In 1946, he enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law, graduating cum laude.

The Bakers lived in various Baltimore neighborhoods, including Guilford and Homeland, until they moved into Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Timonium in 2001.

Mr. Baker began his more than 50-year law career with the Baltimore firm Allen, Burch & Baker, which he founded with Francis B. Burch, who later served as Maryland attorney general. That firm became Baker & Baker, P.A. It relocated to Towson in 1996.

Mr. Baker represented the Baltimore school board in the 1963 school prayer case Murray v. Curlett before the U.S. Supreme Court. Though Mr. Baker, a devout Catholic, argued fervently in favor of the right for public schools to have students pray, he lost that case. He was not involved in the more recent school prayer efforts of evangelical Christians, said Mr. Baker's son, William P. Baker of Lutherville.

"He would not identify with them," said Mr. Baker's son. "He just thought there was no harm in school prayer. Still, when he got involved in something, he got pretty involved."

When the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared its independence in 1960, the U.S. government sent Mr. Baker as a secret envoy to meet with Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. Mrs. Baker waited in Rome during that covert mission, unaware of the details until many years later.

During the 1960s, Mr. Baker was appointed a judge in Orphans' Court in Baltimore and then served as the deputy city solicitor. An avid golfer and member of the Baltimore Country Club for more than 50 years, Mr. Baker was a president and trustee of the Golfer's Charitable Association, which sponsored LPGA and PGA tournaments to raise money for Children's Hospital.

Among numerous city appointments, Mr. Baker served on the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Board, the Baltimore City Liaison Committee to the Maryland Port Authority, the Joint Committee for Revision of the Rules for Maryland Tax Court and the mayor's Neighborhood Conservation Committee.

Mr. Baker was a member of a number of professional legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, the Maryland State Bar Association and the Judge Advocate's Association.

"He was very well respected and a real credit to the law profession," state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said by telephone yesterday.

Mr. Baker also served as president of the Baltimore Jaycees, director of the Health and Welfare Council of the Baltimore Area and director of Junior Achievement of Metropolitan Baltimore.

"He was a legendarily hard worker," said Mr. Baker's son. "He had a lot of energy and was a brilliant man. He had a moral code, believing he should work to help others."

In 1984, when the Baltimore Colts were threatening to move, Mr. Baker encouraged the city to use eminent domain, which empowers government to seize private property for public purposes, to keep the football team from changing locations.

Funeral and burial services were private. A memorial service will be held in the coming weeks, Mrs. Baker said.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by three grandchildren. Another son, Robert B. Baker, died in 1966.

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