THA dinner to honor late Don Baker as ‘Developer of Dreams’

Don Baker (Martha Lochert)

Tucson Hebrew Academy’s “Developer of Dreams” Tikkun Olam Celebration honoring the late Donald Baker will be a promotion of visionary ideals, says Deborah Baker (no relation), alumni coordinator at THA. This year will be an intimate community event because of Baker’s untimely death, she says.

“There are people who have a deep connection to Don that have some stories to share, and it’s really sentimental,” she says. “This is like a love letter from our community to Don. And this is about leaving people inspired by his contribution and how he spent his life making a difference.”

Baker, 59, and his wife, Dawn Hunter-Baker, died, on Jan. 18, when their plane crashed while returning home from a business trip in Deer Valley, Utah. He was co-owner of Larsen Baker L.L.C., the largest retail-commercial real estate company in Tucson, founding the local organization with his partner, George C. Larsen, in 1993. Larsen will be one of the many guest speakers at the event, which will be held Sunday, Nov. 6 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center starting with a cocktail reception at 5:30 p.m. and dinner at 6:30 p.m., business attire is recommended.

Baker served as THA board president from 1995-1997 and was an established member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona board of directors. He also played an integral role in designing and financing the THA’s move to the Volk Jewish Community Campus in 1996.

Two short films commemorating Baker’s life and vision, which will feature THA alumni, community members and friends will play throughout the evening.

Baker’s daughter, Lindsey Baker, says she was very moved when THA asked to honor her father this year. The school was the cornerstone of Baker’s community work, she says, and a mission he was incredibly passionate about.

“I’m touched by people’s generosity of their time, talent and treasure and know my father would be as well,” she says. “THA is a community that has embraced and supported my family always, but it has been most appreciated this year — from the planning of Shiva meals to the coordination of this lovely tribute, their support as been unwavering.”

She remembers her father as a creator, designer and builder so “Developer of Dreams” describes his legacy perfectly, she says, sharing words to her father from her eulogy: “From bulldozers to board meetings, you created an enduring institution that embraces education, enthusiasm and tradition.”

“I love that he was able to leverage his talents for development,” she says. “And in partnership with so many incredible community leaders, including Randy Emerson, build an institution that will continue to educate, nurture and develop students for generations to come.”

Baker also loves that tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a vital part of THA’s curriculum she says. While in some instances it is explicitly taught, it is also woven into the school’s approach and aura. As a young student, Baker fondly recalls Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz enthusiastically singing the mantra “it’s not what we do; it’s the way we do it that makes us THA.”

“THA taught me the importance of social justice and from my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles the importance of philanthropy was consistently emulated,” she says. “I love that THA has an incredible network of alums engaged in diverse careers, many of which tie to social justice.”

The Tikkun Olam dinner “will highlight some of the inspiring work alums are engaged in,” she adds, and how THA “influenced their path.”

Andy Seleznov, director of leasing at Larsen Baker, was one of the fundraising chairs for the event.

Baker possessed an inherent sense of loyalty and respect for their clients and community members in general, says Seleznov, who developed a close friendship with him over the years they worked together. Baker was someone who was depended on and trusted by his business partners, acting as a mentor in many cases. And he recalls Baker driving clear across town just to patronize retailers they were working with.

“[Baker] not only taught me a lot about the real estate industry, but he certainly taught me a lot about how to treat people,” says Seleznov. “There were a lot of lessons, a lot of great lessons that Don taught me personally.”

Jon Ben-Asher, head of school at THA, says for at least 20 years the Tikkun Olam celebration, formerly called the Torah Dinner, has remained a vital fundraising event that helps the Academy fill its financial gaps.

“We look to the philanthropy of the community and the support of the friends of THA at this time of year to help fill that gap,” says Ben-Asher. “It’s a critical annual function.”

Everyone at THA was shocked to hear Baker had passed away, says Ben-Asher, especially since he played an integral role in developing THA’s current location.

“We were sad, we were mournful, and of course like everyone, we were shocked,” he says. “It really hurt because Don’s presence is here at the school. Yet when someone is lost there is an opportunity to celebrate them as a person and the work that they did in their lives.”

This particular event will, he hopes, help a community in mourning. Tikkun Olam is about healing the world, Ben-Asher says, and this event is about healing the community’s sorrow about losing someone as special as Baker.

Ben-Asher remembers Baker’s positive energy and his ever-present bright smile.

“It feels like this is a beautiful way to honor his legacy and show our respect for the contributions that he’s made to Jewish Tucson, to THA and to the community at large,” he says.