Jerry Baker never sought recognition for charitable works during his lifetime—sometimes they just came.
Western Kentucky University made a big splash when Baker decided to donate his property off Morgantown Road to the school. The 115-acre arboretum is a living laboratory for WKU students. It and the Downing Museum are open to the public and for special events. The museum features one of the largest collections of Downing’s art.
“I’m not sure Jerry Baker ever really wanted to highlight that gift, but it was something Western wanted to do,” longtime friend Harvey Johnston said. “At the time it was one of the largest gifts ever to a public university.” Western placed the value at $17 million for the 2006 donation.
Now the Community Foundation of South Central Kentucky is naming Baker, who died in 2017, its South Central Kentuckian of the Year.
“Any honors or accolades that Jerry Baker receives are well deserved,” Johnston said. “I think he would enjoy it more now than when he was alive because he wouldn’t have to be embarrassed.”
Johnston said many people know about Baker because of his gift to Western and arts-related organizations in the community.
“But he was a giver to a lot of different things that no one would ever really know about it. It might have been to just an individual,” Johnston said.
Johnston said Baker thought nothing of providing a scholarship for WKU Lady Toppers basketball, a program he followed religiously, or of establishing a horticulture scholarship in the name of his late friend and noted nurseryman Mitchell Leitchhardt.
Baker also gave of his time and talent to serve on various boards in the community that became his home. He was one of the founding members of the Community Foundation in 1995.
He was a successful businessman at the helm of a company that later became known as Airgas, a large distributor of commercial gases.
The Community Foundation also has been a beneficiary of Baker’s generosity. His estate created a $1 million endowment in the Community Foundation. The endowment will be invested, with the interest generated each year being made as grants to organizations that Baker set out, according to Jennifer Wethington, executive director of the Community Foundation.
Those organizations include Med Center Health Foundation Community Clinic and Dental Clinic, Orchestra Kentucky, Phoenix Theatre, Symphony at WKU and The Boys & Girls Club of Bowling Green.
“Jerry was an extremely generous person and wanted to establish this permanent fund to continue his support of the community, in perpetuity,” Wethington said at the time the endowment was announced. “The Community Foundation is honored to be the steward of his gift, which will provide thousands of dollars to bolster nonprofits in our community.”
The foundation bestows the South Central Kentuckian of the Year honor to highlight the importance of charitable giving in the community.
“Anyone can make a gift to the Community Foundation. Donors to the foundation come from a variety of backgrounds with a common commitment to the community’s well being,” Wethington said.
By helping establish the Community Foundation, Baker had the forethought that “… every person in the community can make a difference.”