Willard Roy Baker passed peacefully into God’s arms in the early morning of July 2, 2018. He was 87 years old. He was an extraordinary man . . . loving, compassionate, adventurous, hard-working, positive, and innovative beyond his years. He touched countless lives. He will be missed tremendously.
Willard was born in Jacksonville, Texas, on September 10, 1930. He was the only child of Emma and Roy Baker, who survived the Great Depression by cultivating a small farm about a mile outside of Reese, Texas. His father once plowed up a quarter when the family had no cash whatsoever. He rode the mule into town, bought some gasoline, came back to the farm and put the gasoline in his truck, then took his wife and son to church. Family values back then were strong, simple and clear. Willard attended school in a one-room schoolhouse and graduated high school when he was 16 years old. Unbeknownst to his parents, he borrowed a truck and obtained his commercial driver license when he was 14 years old. In addition to his work on the family farm, Willard worked a number of jobs during and after World War II, including tomato packing, pipeline construction and working in a saw mill. This latter job caused him to lose his hearing within a certain high frequency range, making him unable to hear high-pitched sounds for the rest of his life.
Willard attended Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas, then transferred to
University of Texas in Austin. However, he left college after his first year to enlist in the
U.S. Air Force. The United States had just developed the F-86 fighter, and later the
F-89, and some of Willard’s greatest memories were made while he was based in
Fairbanks, Alaska, with the 433rd Interceptor Squadron. He enjoyed talking about flying 100’ above the treetops and scrambling his squadron to meet “Ptarmigan” -- the name for the U.S. reconnaissance plane that collected daily intelligence in Soviet airspace and returned to the International Date Line with an escort of MIG fighters. Willard left active duty with the rank of First Lieutenant in 1958. He piloted jet fighters for several more years as a member of the Air National Guard. Once, while in the National Guard, Willard flew his jet -- at a very low altitude -- over his parents’ house in Frankston, Texas. He flew so low he had to look up to see Frankston’s water tower. Unbeknownst to him, an Air Force general was passing through Frankston and had stopped for gas. The general phoned in the call numbers of the plane and the base commander was waiting for Willard when he landed. With a skill that served him well all of his life, Willard somehow negotiated his way out of that situation without a negative consequence!
Willard met Martha Glynn West, a flight attendant for Braniff Airlines, in 1957. Martha and her friends lived in the same Dallas apartment complex as Willard and his friends.
Willard once flew an Air National Guard training mission to Denver, Colorado, to surprise
Martha during one of her flight layovers--for a dinner date in Central City. Willard and Martha married in Highland Park Methodist Church on September 6, 1958, and began their almost 60-year adventure together. Glynna Gene Baker was born in 1959, Gregory Roy Baker was born in 1961, and Clifton West Baker was born in 1964.
When he was in his late teens, even before his Air Force service, Willard decided to pursue a career in real estate. He completed his college education at Southern Methodist University on the GI Bill and continued immediately into the Southern Methodist University Law School. Working with Fox & Jacobs Construction Company during the day to support Martha and a new baby and attending SMU Law School at night, Willard seldom slept for more than a few hours a day. He studied with one foot lifted off the floor to avoid drifting off to sleep. Willard graduated from SMU in 1961 with a business degree and a law degree.
While in school, and for four years thereafter, Willard did field and administrative work for Fox & Jacobs (now Centex Homes). From 1958 to 1965 he worked side by side with Dave Fox and Ike Jacobs, who were themselves visionaries in the real estate world. Many of Willard’s peers also started their real estate careers working with Fox & Jacobs.
Shortly after completing law school, Willard returned to his native East Texas to pursue his first real estate projects. He built a four-plex, then an eight-plex, in Jacksonville, Texas. Wanting to expand his reach, Willard contacted Trammell Crow, a guest lecturer who impressed him during one of his law school classes. Willard, Crow, and several partners would go on to build and manage over 5,500 multi-family units in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Colorado over the next decade. Willard had the long-term vision necessary to conceptualize large, master-planned communities, and The Baker Crow Company began developing raw land. Willard enjoyed the process of entitling land for longterm development, and selling the vision to community leaders. In 1977, after approximately 12 years with Baker Crow Company, the partnership was dissolved and Willard formed Willard R. Baker Development Company.
Willard built an organization that bought, developed, and sold thousands of acres of land for residential and commercial use. His sons Greg and Clif, along with several partners and a very talented core staff, enjoyed the fruits of a booming real estate economy for several years. Willard and his crew developed land in the Dallas Metro area, Houston, Rockport, Atlanta, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. By the end of his career, Willard had helped provide residences for 16,778 families -- 11,268 single family lots, and 5,510 apartment units. There were many more acres developed which would eventually hold more apartments, shopping centers, office buildings, hotels and warehouses. One such tract is now the site of the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas.
In 1976 the family added a new member, Mazinho Chubaci, an exchange student from
Brazil. Willard considered Mazinho his fourth child. At the end of his stay in the U.S.,
Mazinho told Willard, “Dad, you have taught me how to work". Willard had not spared Mazinho when Willard got the children up on Saturday mornings to pull weeds in the yard. Mazinho returned to Brazil in 1977, but has continued to visit Martha, Willard, and the children over the past 40 years.
During the 1980’s, Willard’s love of flying, and his company’s need for extensive travel, led to the purchase of two airplanes, one being a Beechcraft King Air Turboprop. The company also celebrated all of their hard work with some hard play. There were annual fishing trips, hunting trips and working vacations to scout new cities where deals might be done. Willard and family enjoyed some wonderful vacations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Even the family pets flew between Dallas and Rockport on a regular basis!
Willard and Martha purchased a property in Breckenridge, Colorado, and flew into Denver’s Centennial Airport for frequent ski trips and visits with Glynna, who resides in Colorado.
Willard was a lifelong learner and traveler, and he, Martha, and the children enjoyed visiting numerous locations in the U.S. and abroad. He took Greg and Clif on YMCA Indian Guide and Webalo camping trips. The family traveled to Argentina, Peru, Panama, and the San Blas Islands on a three week trip in 1971. He took Glynna on a ski trip to Breckenridge her senior year of high school and to Las Vegas when she turned 21. Early travels included family camping trips in the New Mexico and the Colorado Rockies, and trips to El Paso, Terlingua, San Antonio, Austin, Fredericksburg, Lake Waco, San Francisco, Carmel, Santa Barbara, Las Vegas, Oregon, Washington, the Grand Canyon, the Ozark Mountains, New York, and New England. Willard enjoyed vacationing with the family in Rockport, Breckenridge, and Hawaii. Their later travels took them to Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Russia, South Africa, China, Brazil, The Cayman Islands, Mexico, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and British Columbia.
In addition to traveling, Willard loved golf. He was a member of Brookhaven, Bent Tree, and Gleneagles Country Clubs in Dallas, and Rockport Country Club in Rockport. His family and friends remember several super-competitive, extremely fun “Sand Crab Scrambles” that made for hours of excitement and lifelong memories.
Although the family had many pets over the years, three became true companions to Willard. The first was his childhood dog “Tiny”, who spent countless hours hunting with him in East Texas. The second was “Rommel”, a 120-pound German Shepherd who accompanied Willard on many trips across the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex and North Texas to look at tracts of land and hunt for doves, quail and ducks. The third was “Kate”, a Labrador Retriever whose enthusiasm for life rivaled his own. They enjoyed many long walks together during the dark days of Texas’ real estate collapse.
The Savings & Loan collapse in the mid-80’s devastated the real estate industry and, unfortunately, Willard was not immune. 1986-1994 saw a relentless contraction of his holdings. In 1996 Willard’s battle to save his empire finally ended. That year he filed the largest personal bankruptcy in the history of Dallas County.
From 1996-2008, Willard made a modest comeback, but his activity level never reached that of 1964-84. Savings & Loans no longer existed and banks no longer made 100% acquisition and development loans. However, with the backing of investors, Willard, Greg, and Clif hammered out a consistent stream of residential subdivisions. One of these in particular held a special place in Willard’s imagination. Willard developed “Chimney Rock,” a 100 acre tract in Flower Mound, TX, that contained about 49 one-acre custom lots. The other 50 acres became a wildlife conservation easement -- the first development of its kind in Texas. The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife consulted to restore native species of flora and fauna on the property, and today this property is a nature sanctuary in the middle of a bustling metropolis.
Willard had a strong desire to give back to his community. He was a member of The Downtown Dallas Chili Club that helped feed the homeless. He and Martha volunteered at the Sale Street Fair, which raised funds for charitable causes. In the early 80s, Willard and Martha also embarked on what would become a lifelong passion. Willard’s love for gardening, especially of tomatoes and a wide variety of hot chili peppers, combined with his understanding of land development, led them to join with a group of like minded leaders. This group grabbed some machetes and clippers and literally hacked their way up to the front door of the old Camp Estate on White Rock Lake, in the middle of what is now the world-renowned Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society. From that point on, and for as long as their minds and bodies would permit, they helped plan, promote, and fund various projects of DABS. Willard was a member of the board of directors and was the committee chairman of the Architectural and Construction Committee. Martha was a founding member and the first treasurer of the Women’s Council. Willard and Martha endowed a beautiful garden--Fernwood Fold--within the Woman’s Garden, which is dedicated to their parents, Emma and Roy Baker, and Mildred and Max West, Sr. In May 2011, Willard and Martha were honored with the Founder’s Award from the Women’s Council for their contributions to the gardens.
In 2008 Willard was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. But he never stepped down as president of his development company, and he always believed his next real estate deal was still ahead of him. One of his last intelligible conversations occurred several months before his death. He was meeting with an invisible audience, explaining how anyone who believed he wasn’t going to make the deal happen had another think coming. Willard Baker was perhaps the last of the great gentleman developers.
Throughout this incredible journey, from living on a small East-Texas farm with--literally--no cash, to flying fighter jets in the U.S. Air Force, to building an asset holding that totaled approximately $375 million, then into a financial crisis that took almost everything away, then back to a modest twilight of his career, and finally into the depths of Alzheimer’s Disease, Willard never lost what made him an incredible human being. He treated all people with dignity and respect; he loved his family with all of his being; he understood that true happiness comes from connection with those you love and has nothing to do with material things; he was a leader, not a follower; he was forever positive and optimistic; he encouraged those around him to work hard and follow their dreams; he was a child at heart and never stopped having fun.
Glynna thanks her father for encouraging her to pursue her dreams. In an era when women were not necessarily treated equally with men, he helped me see beyond those barriers. He taught me that family and friendships are the most important thing in life. He taught me to respect the dignity of others, regardless of their background or their ethnicity or their current circumstance. He taught me how to see the positive in any situation. He taught me how to have fun. I remember weekend mornings when Daddy would not let Greg, Clif, or me sleep in because there was something fun to do, like go to the Dallas Farmer’s Market, or go to breakfast with the pilots at Addison Airport, or go on a training hike for an upcoming backpacking trip, or just go get coffee and chat. I look forward to many more adventures with him someday in Heaven. Daddy, I love you.
Greg remembers many wonderful Indian Guide adventures, and evenings when my father returned home from a hard day at the office wanting to play a game of catch. I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with my father as an adult and get to know him as a friend. It was heartwarming to see over the years how many people loved my father and respected his professional judgement. He could inject laughter into the tensest situations, find the bright side of any circumstance, and motivate others to find more excellence in themselves than they thought possible. I loved traveling with him because he would see more of a city or village by 8AM than most tourists would see all day. He never tired of encouraging people -- male or female -- that they could achieve anything they set their mind to. He loved hard work for the pure joy of it, and spent his life doing things that thrilled him and spiritually enriched others. His infectious enthusiasm will be missed.
Clif grew up and worked with his dad his entire adult life. The only times I was not with Dad were my four and one-half years at The University of Texas. Dad had such a positive outlook on all things in life. He had an inner child-like enthusiasm for all his endeavors. I will cherish the family trips we took, from camping, to snow skiing, to mountain climbing. He always wanted to be side-by-side with his kids, in whatever adventure it was. Maybe the greatest insight into Dad’s life was when his Alzheimer’s had taken over his mind. His character, his love of family, and his sense of humor could not be smothered by the disease. I will always thank the good Lord that Dad kept these wonderful attributes until the very end of his life. I know Dad is in paradise with the Lord, awaiting the day when he reunites with his loving family. God bless you Daddy.
Willard is survived by Martha, his wife of almost 60 years, his daughter Glynna, his son Greg, his son Clif, his son-in-law Bert Obleski, his daughter-in-law Joy Baker, his grandsons Mic and Jaime Obleski, his step-granddaughter Ana-Alisia White, his brother-in-law Max West, Jr., his sister-in-law and her husband, Myrna and Greg Fair, and numerous cousins, nieces, and nephews in East Texas and Houston.
The family wants to thank all of the wonderful caretakers who helped with Willard’s care in his last several years: Friends Place, Heart of Texas, Faith Presbyterian Hospice, North Texas Personal Care Homes, Violet, Christabel, Mulemu, Mulenga, Hannah, and Dora.
Contributions may be made to the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, 8525
Garland Road, Dallas, TX 75218 or online at