Donn Baker, a longtime Tahlequah attorney described as a legend in northeastern Oklahoma, died early Thursday morning. He was 71.
Baker was one of the most recent victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. He died at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. His younger brother, Bill John Baker, reported Donn was placed on a ventilator after his condition worsened Wednesday.
Whether appearing for the prosecution or defense, the sight of Baker at the opposing counsel table in a courtroom was enough to provoke discomfort in his opponent; outside the courtroom, meeting him sparked a friendly exchange of words, a joke or two, a good story.
For decades, Baker was renowned for his oratorical abilities. But long before he set foot in a courtroom, that was obvious to another of Oklahoma’s future top attorneys.
“I first met him when he was a debate student at Tahlequah High School and I was doing my intern teaching,” said Drew Edmondson, former Oklahoma attorney general.
Edmondson doesn’t recall prosecuting a case Baker defended when he was Muskogee County district attorney, but he took the opportunity to watch him in the courtroom a number of times.
“He had an ability shared by only a few lawyers: to connect with the jurors and to share their views,” Edmondson said. “Whether he was defending or prosecuting, he was equally able in both those roles.”
He thought Baker was especially skillful at relating to jurors and connecting with them.
Another person who recognized Baker’s potential many years ago was Herb Rozell, longtime Democratic state senator and floor leader from Cherokee County. Rozell had also been a high school principal, and though he knew Baker for most of his life, he became well-acquainted with him while Baker studied at the Oklahoma City University School of Law.
When Rozell traveled to the state capitol for the weekly legislative session, he gave Baker a lift to law school and enjoyed their discussions en route.
“It breaks my heart,” Rozell said Thursday. “He was a terrific lawyer, and he had a heart of gold.”
He said Baker performed a lot of pro bono work, and did good deeds for people that many were unaware of. And while his presence wasn’t obvious in politics, he was a strong Democrat.
“He played the background. He didn’t really stand out in front, but he was a strong backer and the kind you’d want to have,” said Rozell.
Baker’s success was to be expected, coming from a family well-known in education and Democratic politics. His parents, Tim and Isabel Baker, had three sons. The eldest, Tim, is also a renowned attorney in Tahlequah and northeastern Oklahoma. The third, Bill John, served two terms as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Isabel, who died in 2019, was always a prominent face among Oklahoma Democrats.
Tim Baker said his brother will be missed not only by his family, but by the community.
“We had a lot of respect for each other and helped each other. He told me that as his older brother, I had been his daddy and mama, and a damn good older brother,” he said.
Besides his reputation as an outstanding attorney and a contributor to the civic welfare of Tahlequah and Cherokee County, he was known locally for the brilliant display of Christmas lights around his house at Park Hill Road and State Highway 82.
“We laughed a lot about how he would get the credit for it, but he would be the first to tell you Sharon [his wife] was responsible for it,” Tim Baker said.
Stilwell attorney Rex Earl Starr became co-workers and friends with Baker when both served as assistant district attorneys in District 27, Baker in Cherokee County and Starr in Adair County. Later they practiced as colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In recent years, they’ve represented clients in the same cases in Oklahoma and in federal courts in several states.
Starr said he couldn’t have asked for a better friend over the past four decades, or a superior co-counsel.
“In my opinion, there’s not a better fellow anywhere around – integrity without a question. He was always a gentleman, mannerly. People respected him,” Starr said. “You didn’t have to write anything down. If he told you something, you could bank on it.”
Baker never forgot his rural roots. Although he was a well-educated man whose reputation attracted big-city clients and was comfortable dealing with officials in high positions in Washington, D.C., he also could relate to a backwoods person in Adair or Cherokee County on their own terms, Starr said.
“He could talk to all of them and be just as comfortable as he could be, and they’d talk to them,” he said. “He could gee and haw, no matter where he’d be, no question about it.”
Another Adair County resident, former Oklahoma House Speaker Larry Adair, said Baker’s loss will be felt throughout the area.
“Donn was probably one of the most professional attorneys I’ve ever known. He represented a lot of people in Adair County over the years. He was always very thorough. He was a gentleman,” Adair said.
Jason Nichols, former Tahlequah mayor and current District 2 Democratic Party chair, knows local residents will miss Baker’s presence.
“There are some people you meet so early in life that it seems they have always just been there. Donn was one of those people to me,” he said.
Baker was the father of one of Nichols’ schoolmates from age 6, and he first knew him as “Jeff’s dad.” Later he grew to appreciate Baker’s professional skills.
He had already been municipal judge for many years when Nichols became mayor. Baker’s term as judge was about to expire when Nichols saw him at a fund-raiser for a community organization one night. He told Baker he intended to reappoint him, and Baker told him that wasn’t technically necessary.
“I wanted the honor of doing so,” Nichols said. “I don’t think he knew how important it was to me that he knew how much confidence I had in him, and how grateful I was for the great job he was doing as judge. I may have actually annoyed him with my insistence on the formality, given I never had the chance to communicate that underlying motivation borne out of a deep respect and reservoir of gratitude.”
Nichols' successor, Sue Catron, is also a fan. She pointed out the entire Baker family has had a "tremendous impact" on the community.
"While I knew Donn Baker as another community member, I only got to know him at a different level when I took office as mayor in May 2019," she said. "Judge Baker was one of the longest-tenured employees of the city, and as such, his support in the early days of my term was invaluable. He understood that a new mayor has much to learn, and was willing to help this newbie find solid ground."
Baker served the city for over 35 years, and Catron admits it's hard to imagine the court system without him at the helm.
"In my email to our city department heads this morning, I described Donn Baker as a pillar of the community. That wasn’t intended to be trite, but he truly was a source of strength, while lifting those around him. I have heard today from a number of Tahlequah attorneys who have talked of the support they received from Judge Baker and described how they would look to him for advice. He will definitely be missed."
Tahlequah attorney Jim Cosby is among that group. He has represented clients while Baker presided in municipal court. He said it wasn’t unusual for Baker to give people a break or a second chance. Cosby had heard of Baker’s reputation as an outstanding attorney before he established his practice in Tahlequah two decades ago, and was glad to meet him and become his friend.
"He was a mentor to all of us young lawyers. We all learned from him,” he said.
Cosby also mentioned Baker’s love for rodeo and for working cattle. And, yes, those Christmas lights.
When Baker represented a client in a felony case in Muskogee County, his first appearance was usually before Special District Judge Robin Adair.
“Donn was a legend. His loss is a personal loss to all of us who worked with him,” Adair said “I would probably consider him to be the most successful trial attorney who appeared before me.”
He called Baker a kind man, someone who fit right in with the people of northeastern Oklahoma.
“He was very realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of the system and the strengths and weaknesses of his clients, and he did his best to represent them,” the judge said.
Brian Kuester, former District 27 district attorney, now holds Baker’s former position as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. He said Baker’s reputation as a great trial lawyer became obvious to him during a week-long jury trail 15 years ago.
“I also walked away from that trial with the belief that Donn was a great man, a belief that grew stronger over the years that followed. In the community at-large as well as the legal community, he was a legend who needed no reference beyond 'Donnie' to identify him,” Kuester said.
He believes Baker has impacted many lives by the way he lived life and practiced law.
“To say he will be missed is an understatement. For those of us who had the good fortune of knowing him, Donn will not soon be forgotten,” Kuester said.
Jack Thorp, current District 27 district attorney, said he valued Baker not only in his capacity as prosecutor, but in his capacity as a friend. He will miss his many conversations with Baker.
“When Donn would try cases outside of District 27, I was the guy all the prosecutors would call to prepare for Donn Baker,” he said.
And when he would teach classes to young prosecutors, he would demonstrate “the Donn Baker cross-examination” for them.
Thorp had many memorable courtroom battles with Baker.
“He was just an old-school fighter in the courtroom and a friend outside the courtroom," Thorp said. “He had a million stories. He was so fierce, yet he had such an amazing heart. He never touted his accomplishments; he was never conceited. He was just ‘get-along Donnie.’”
Betty Ridge was a long-time reporter for the Tahlequah Daily Press before her retirement several years ago. She still works occasionally as a correspondent on Native affairs and other important stories.