Shockwaves were sent throughout the Tucson community on Jan. 18 following the death of local businessman and philanthropist Donald Baker, 59, co-owner of commercial real estate firm Larsen Baker L.L.C., and his wife, Dawn Hunter-Baker, 55, in a plane crash.
Baker was piloting his Cessna Citation 525, returning to Tucson from a Citation Jet Pilots Association regional event in Park City, Utah, when the plane experienced mechanical problems. Baker was a founding member of the pilots association.
Some 600 family members and friends gathered Jan. 22 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center for a memorial service to remember the couple, with Rabbi Thomas Louchheim officiating.
George Larsen, a friend and longtime business partner, recalled that he recruited Baker to work at Best Commercial Real Estate. Larsen told those gathered that when they later formed their own commercial real estate business, Baker bought hats that said “Baker Larsen” on them.
“Nice try Don,” he said.
“We became fast friends after starting to work together,” Larsen said. “We never, until I got old last year, had anything other than a handshake, and yet not one problem ever came up that caused us to have second thoughts about our partnership.”
Baker was as well known for his philanthropy as for his business acumen. He was a long-time member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona board of directors.
JFSA President Stuart Mellan said that Baker had a major impact on the future of the Tucson Jewish community. “Don gave leadership to the construction of the Tucson Hebrew Academy on our campus and was really the champion for that project,” he said.
Baker went on to serve as THA president from 1995-1997.
Along with turns as vice chairman and treasurer of the JFSA board, Baker was chair of JFSA’s agency review committee, co-chair of the Real Estate and Allied Professionals group, and a member of the Men’s Next Generation group.
“He was always looking towards the future and to the potential for the future,” Mellan said. “He was sort of an out-of-the-box thinker, always looking at the idea of how our community could cooperate together. He always had a fresh and optimistic point of view about our community.”
Richard Kleiner, a commercial real estate colleague, was Baker’s REAP co-chair from 2003-2004.
“Don always had a terrific sense of humor, a lot of personal warmth, extremely bright,” he said.
Kleiner said there was something special about how Baker regarded those he worked with, which led to his professional success.
“He knew that they retained tenants because they treated them well and that was just a hallmark of Don … that he always tried to make a deal that worked in everybody’s interests, not just his,” he said.
Commercial real estate developer and JFSA chairman Tom Warne knew Baker since 1987, when Warne converted to Judaism and became involved in the Jewish community. They were part of the Men’s Next Generation Leadership Group and traveled to Israel together.
“He cared very deeply about Israel, and he cared about the United States as a whole, as a country,” Warne said.
“He definitely was a visionary,” he said. “The difference with his vision and so many of us … we have vision and we don’t implement it, but he had great vision, and he would do everything he could to implement it.”
Baker leaves behind a large tight-knit family that includes his children, Lindsey and Josh; mother, Millie Baker; siblings, Jan and Norman; and ex-wife and friend, Shelley Pozez.
Ben Pozez has fond memories of family gatherings and trips with his uncle. He said he’s been following in the family tradition and training to be a pilot like his grandfather, father and Baker.
“Don was an amazing pilot, an extremely fastidious pilot,” Pozez said. “He took incredible care of his airplane. I can’t say enough of him as a pilot.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the Jewish Federation or Tucson Hebrew Academy. Arrangements were made by Evergreen Mortuary.
Michael Miklofsky is a freelance writer living in Oro Valley with his wife and three daughters. He also is a Realtor® with Realty Executives Tucson Elite and director of marketing for The Shoe House, Inc.