Dr. Isabel Baker was known as a "grand lady" who left a positive mark on her community, state, political party, and the hearts of countless students and friends. Along with her good works and emphasis on education and empowering women, Baker, who died this week, will be remembered for her smile and laughter.
Born in Row, Oklahoma, Baker moved to Tahlequah as a youth and called it home most of her life. She graduated from high school at age 16, and followed in the footsteps of her parents, both educators. After graduating from Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M) in 1954 with a master's in elementary education, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction in 1972, she taught in public schools almost 20 years.
Baker also taught at Morehead State University, OSU and Northeastern State University. She has served on the OSU/A&M College of Regents, and was vice chair of the Tahlequah Hospital Foundation and president of Phi Delta Kappa. Honors and awards are numerous and include Oklahoma Woman's Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Mother of the Year, OSU's College of Education Hall of Fame, NSU's President's Award for Community Service, and NSU Centurion.
Family was always precious to Baker, who was mother to three sons and had many grandchildren and great-grands. Her Facebook presence was about making a difference and speaking in kindness. She was also known in recent years for her movie reviews.
“Dr. Isabel Baker leaves a lasting mark on education and gender equality in Oklahoma," said Burns Hargis, OSU president. "Dr. Baker was a wonderful friend of OSU and all higher education. Oklahoma State joins in celebrating her extraordinary life and extends its deepest sympathies to her family.”
Steve Turner, NSU president, described Baker as having a servant’s heart, the mind of a college professor, and the tenacity to make good things happen. Just about a year ago, Baker was featured speaker at the ribbon-cutting for the NSU Center for Women’s Studies.
"When you listened to her telling her story, you were keenly aware that she was a person of faith, loved her family, and enthusiastically embraced the role of teacher. Her humility was obvious, but her story resonated to all in attendance. In her quiet voice – and don’t let that quiet voice fool you – she gave multiple examples of how she pushed back against policies and practices in education that were unfair to women," said Turner. "NSU is a better institution because she cared so much for others. I am a better person because of her example and friendship."
Former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Larry Adair called Baker "a grand lady."
"She was a great Democrat, someone who had lots of energy and worked tirelessly for causes she believed in. She certainly left her mark on people who knew her," said Adair.
In fact, when former Gov. David Walters introduced Baker at the Democrat State Convention, as she was honored with the the Carl Albert Award, he affectionately called her "the matriarch of the Oklahoma Democratic Party." For at least 50 years, Baker served the party, which she said was really about making the community safer and better for people, not politics. She was disappointed that a woman had not yet been elected president.
Susan Chapman Plumb met Baker when she was appointed to a board on which Plumb was already seated.
"She and I were the only women on the board, and I made it my mission to make sure she knew about all of the 'unwritten rules and lingo' that come with stepping into something new. Well, that didn’t take long, because she was a super-quick learner and was a fully contributing member in no time," Plumb said. "Then she rapidly began to teach me about how to speak your mind and be heard without it being the loudest voice at the table. She was also not afraid to change. In fact, she embraced change. I think that’s how she stayed relevant. She just wasn’t afraid."
Peggy Glenn, NSU Foundation executive director, got to know Baker through the American Association of University Women.
"When she asked friends to attend AAUW meetings with her, people came. She was instrumental in helping AAUW appeal to a wide range of ages, and was certainly worthy of the honor she received as one of AAUW Tahlequah’s Women of Distinction during our 75th anniversary," said Glenn.
Seeing Baker speak on national television at the Democratic Convention in 2016 made Glenn's heart swell with joy.
"She was sometimes self-conscious about her distinctive voice, but since that’s the only voice I’d ever heard from her, I encouraged her to not worry about what people thought, since she always had a message to share," Glenn said.
Her smile is what friend and fellow Democrat Lee Sallis liked about Baker. The two met in the 1980s when they went to meetings and conventions.
"Some people, you never know what page they're on, but not her. It seems like when other ladies were having a discussion and couldn't make a decision, she was the one to take the lead so everybody could agree on what they were discussing," Sallis said. "She always inspired me. I still have her T-shirt when she ran for Congress."
Beth Herrington and Baker were friends since elementary school and were neighbors twice.
"When we were little girls, we lived catty-corner from each other in Locust Grove in fifth grade. We walked to school together. Her mom was teaching in a county school and her dad was working away. We played together in the evenings. And again, when we were old ladies, we were neighbors, and we'd call and check on each other," said Herrington, who taught two of Baker's sons. "Izzy and Bake, as she called her husband, were always fun, and very supportive parents. She talked about Bake and how hard they worked to go to school. They were very young and poor and had to share books, but he was determined she would go to college, too."
Herrington was impressed with the way her friend was always interested in people.
"She was always positive and kindly and always interested in education. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and we would tell each other things, we'd laugh and laugh, even funny stories about her boys as grandfathers," said Herrington. "She had definite ideas about things. She was not a fence-sitter and neither am I. She was part of the old school – an old-fashioned person, but also very modern.
Herrington said Baker expected people to do their very best.
"I loved her. Everybody needs a foundational friend and we're going to miss her. It's a loss for all of us," said Herrington.