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Column: Baker's legacy takes many forms

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Sept 25 1989
Sept 25 1989

Jim Baker was inducted into the order of the Sagamore of the Wabash a couple of weeks ago — again. The retired business executive and community activist was inducted by none other than Gov. Mike Pence.

The governor even made a trip to Columbus to present the scroll in person to the honoree, stopping at Silver Oaks Health Campus, where the former chairman of Arvin Industries is a patient.

Make no mistake, the Sagamore is about as good as it gets in terms of an honor paid to a citizen by the state.

Only thing is that this is Jim Baker’s third Sagamore. Family members recall he was given an earlier proclamation by then-Gov. Ed Whitcomb and are uncertain as to whether the second came from Otis Bowen or his successor, Robert Orr.


This latest honor focused a great deal of attention to efforts by the former business leader to improve education in the state — from his leadership of a capital campaign for Indiana University Purdue University Columbus in the early 1980s to a major role in a public school reform effort that aimed to increase collaboration between university presidents and corporate executives to improve education in America.

Jim’s achievements in championing education are certainly noteworthy, but they’re only part of a much bigger story.

I’m reminded of that story by such things as the Foundation for Youth, Mill Race Park, the stately office building now housing the administrative offices of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and the company that once was but is largely no more — Arvin Industries Inc.

Jim was the chairman of Arvin from 1986 to 1998, but even before assuming that title he had long been considered a potential leader.

The late Coke Coons, who was in charge of personnel at the corporate office of the local company that manufactured a wide range of products from televisions and radios to automotive exhaust systems, loved to recount the story of his first interview with the young man who had just completed a two-year stint in the Army in 1955.

Coke emerged from that first talk, walked down the hall and told senior executives Harlan Foulke and Don Shumway, “I have a future president of Arvin down in my office. Where do you fellows want to put him?”

They found a place, and the DePauw University graduate not only became president but eventually chairman. It was during his tenure with the company that Arvin became an entrenched member of the Fortune 500.

Despite its global reach, the company retained the quality of the community in which it was headquartered. It had a corporate structure, but its leaders, during Jim’s tenure, kept in mind that Columbus was home base.

That attitude was preserved in a number of ways, some of them pretty quirky for an international corporation. One was the decision to move into a new corporate headquarters building, one that was, in part, pretty darn old.

Instead of erecting a modernistic structure, Arvin chose as the footprint for its major administrative offices a 19th-

century building that years before had been Garfield School. The original school made up only a portion of the final complex, but when construction was completed, the finished product represented a seamless transition between the old and the new.

Jim chose for his office a large room in the front of the original building. It was where his wife, Beverly, had once taught classes for elementary school students.

He never forgot that Arvin Industries had sprung from a small partnership in the early 20th century and that one of the partners was a farmer’s son from the Ogilville area, Q.G. Noblitt. He even commissioned a special statue depicting a turn-of-the-century motorist putting air into the flattened tire of his Model A car with an air pump. That’s how the company got its start, making air pumps.

Arvin Industries, as it was through the last 81 years of the 20th century, is no more. Two years after Jim’s retirement as chairman, Arvin was merged with Meritor Inc., and the new company’s headquarters were established in Michigan. In the years that followed, the former Arvin properties were divested and sold to other entities. The headquarters building he had commissioned was sold to Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

While the company he helped shape is largely gone, there are still other tangible reminders of Jim Baker’s impact on this community. One is Mill Race Park.

In the late 1980s, Columbus was preparing a mammoth celebration centered on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to America, and community leaders wanted to develop a lasting legacy of the celebration.

At the time Mill Race Park was a modest green space bordering the downtown. Something much more extensive and elaborate was seen as an ideal gift from the community to itself.

The plans for the project were, indeed, ideal. So were the anticipated costs — millions of dollars.

Jim agreed to raise funds for the park renovation from the private sector. Much of it was pledged in a so-called “quiet” campaign, in which the executive called upon his peers in the world of business and philanthropy to commit enormous sums of money.

The campaign was a success, and the park certainly speaks for itself.

Years later he again stepped forth to lead another fund drive, this one to expand and renovate the Foundation for Youth. In many ways, this project was a personal mission. One of the leaders in establishing FFY was Q.G. Noblitt. Even after his death, the company he co-founded and Jim Baker led continued to make significant contributions to the operation of the youth center.

By the late 1990s, the center had fallen on bad times, and conditions in the structure of the building had deteriorated to the point at which there were two options, closing the operation or rebuilding it almost from scratch. Needless to say the cost was enormous.

The Arvin chairman put his talents to work and raised approximately $5 million. Another $5 million was committed by the city for the project that ensured that Foundation for Youth would remain a presence in the community for decades to come.

The Foundation for Youth, Mill Race Park, the Garfield School complex, Arvin Industries and education each occupy places in Jim Baker’s legacy to his adopted community.

I wonder if three Sagamores are enough recognition.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at

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