Obituary for HAT member George Baker

George Baker Obituary
Born in Burin, Newfoundland on March 19, 1924. Died Monday, January 7, 2013
By Don Cullen

A true and magnanimous friend to the humanist community in Canada has died.  George Baker lost his battle with cancer.  He was 89 years of age.  Born in Newfoundland, his family came to Toronto in the dirty thirties when the depression was upon us.  He had eight brothers and sisters, left school in grade 7, and entered the work force.  Prospects for advancement did not look good.  Times were hard.

World War II saw George in the Air Force as a navigator in a Bomber squadron.  IQ and aptitude tests had proven him gifted.  Back in Toronto he found employment with General Electric and Bell Telephone as an electrician, always looking for extra work to support his wife and two daughters.

George’s father was a strict and devoted member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.  At age 14 George rebelled.  Later he and his wife Margaret became Unitarians and he discovered Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th century humanist writer.  George had gradually become a non-academic intellectual immersed in biographies of famous reformers in anti-slavery and feminism.  He also made himself knowledgeable with Scientology, Mormonism and Islam.

 George and Margaret supported a student from Thailand who was studying at U of T.  Having spent some time in Indonesia on a major electrical project, George became acquainted with the Orient, where he made a business deal in electronics with a Chinese entrepreneur.  Their business flourished.  This depression era kid from Newfoundland finally had financial security.

He had supported the Unitarian congregation, but became interested in secular humanism.  He joined HAT as a lifetime member.  Officially HAT consisted of a postal box for mail, and a telephone number with an answering machine.  There were ten meetings a year, with outside speakers.  A group within HAT longed for a home, possibly a storefront with a public face.  George Baker volunteered to support the idea.  HAT expanded into weekly discussions at OISE and the search for a home location began.

George purchased a ramshackle house on Harbord Street and an architect was hired for renovations, all financed by George.  A strike at City Hall delayed the necessary documents and George sold that property.  Soon a problem at U of T introduced Justin Trottier, Jennie Fiddis and Elaine Cairns.  They were given some financial support by HAT, which felt the need to encourage younger members. Doctor Robert Buckman got excited about the humanist activities at U of T, and a meeting was held with Rob, Doctor Henry Morgenthaler, George, Jim Cranwell, and me (Don Cullen).  This led directly to the lease of 116 Beverley Street, again financed completely by George.  Originally, Robert Buckman was to have been a co-signer of the lease with George, but got pneumonia and never came on board.

The original intention was to have a place where U of T humanists could hang out and socialize, HAT could expand, and Ontario skeptics could come aboard and participate.  It was hoped that the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC) might move from Ottawa to Canada’s largest city, and there was talk of a loose association with the Center for Inquiry (HQ Amherst NY).  CFI had hoped to establish a presence in Toronto some years earlier, but that hadn’t happened yet.

 U of T students dug in enthusiastically, but the Skeptics became skeptical and opted out.  HAT had a general meeting and unanimously set up shop.  HAC showed minimal interest and ultimately none at all.   During this period HAT Sunday forums grew quickly.  Within a year and a half we needed to split the group into two discussion groups to handle the volume of people coming.  At its peak 60 or 70 people a week would show up, and membership exceed 200 people at this time.

 By this time George was in his eighties and wanted HAT to start contributing financially, be it ever so small, for the lease at Beverley Street.  His age was a large factor in his thinking.  Responsibility would eventually have to be passed on.  HAT agonized over fund raising.  George had spent the better part of a million dollars for the sake of humanism, and wanted to see it continue successfully independently.  HAT ultimately refused to accept any financial responsibility in this regard.

George had been an admirer of Paul Kurtz and the Center for Inquiry.  He asked CFI to take over the operation of Beverley Street, and continued to support it financially.  Justin Trottier formally took over leadership, and in spite of some differences with colleagues, acquitted himself well on TV and other media.  With focus and hard work, he established CFI groups across Canada, much to the delight of George.

George Baker, sometimes feisty, always candid and ready for a joke, was humble about his contributions to humanism.  He had a sense of irony akin to Margaret Atwood’s, and never carried a grudge. 

 He leaves his wife of 59 years, Margaret, and two daughters: Diane, a successful novelist and lawyer with two children, Alan and Ian, and Donnamarie, a retired hospital administrator who was George’s primary caregiver this past year.

 Those of us who knew him well will miss George terribly.