Donald Baker, 93, climbed ranks to be PGW manager

3 x 2 donald baker
Donald Baker

Donald Baker, 93, formerly of North Philadelphia, a Philadelphia Gas Works employee who over four decades rose from laborer to become the utility's first African American manager for gas supply, died Dec. 30 of organ failure at his daughter's home in Pennrose.

A native of Beaumont, Texas, Mr. Baker was the son of Lena Dugas and David G. Baker. In 1940, he graduated from Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont, and a year later enlisted in the Navy.

He saw action aboard ships in the North Atlantic and South Pacific oceans before being honorably discharged Sept. 18, 1945.

While his ship was berthed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during the war, Mr. Baker attended a USO dance where he met Henrietta Grier. They married in 1943, had three children, and remained a team until her death in 2001, his family said.

When the children were young, the couple packed them up and drove to Beaumont to visit his relatives. At that time in the Jim Crow South, African Americans were not welcome in hotels or motels, but that didn't deter Mr. Baker.

"We slept in the car in parking lots and all kinds of places," said daughter Cheryl Lynn Branham. "His resolve to get his family to Texas never wavered. His desire for his children to know about their heritage was most important to him."

In October 1945, Mr. Baker was hired as a laborer at the Philadelphia Gas Works, Station B, Richmond plant. As he put it, he climbed from the "very bottom to the top," becoming a manager of all gas supply operations in Philadelphia - the first African American to hold that title, his family said.

He was engaged in the gas-making processes and spoke the language of the industry. Many times, he started work before sunrise and arrived home after midnight. If a crisis arose at the plant, he stayed for days, until the plant was running again. He retired in 1987.

Mr. Baker brought the same dedication to his church that he showed on the job. He accepted Christ at an early age at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Beaumont. In 1956, he joined Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in North Philadelphia.

He was a president of the parish council, chairman of the parish finance committee, and a baritone soloist in the gospel choir. His favorite songs were "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" by Randy Travis and the Christmas carol "O Holy Night."

In 1991, Mr. Baker was named Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II. The honor recognizes personal service of laymen to the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Baker helped to establish the Knights of St. Peter Claver, Council 187, a fraternal organization of Black Catholic laymen. He served as Grand Knight, financial secretary, recording secretary, and warden.

In 2005, when Mr. Baker's health began to fail, he moved in with his daughter and son-in-law Gordon Branham. He enjoyed outings to his old neighborhood or his former workplace.

"I just want to see if anything has changed," and "You never know who you might see," he told them.

His wife and two sons, Donald Jr. and Wayne, died earlier. Besides his daughter, he is survived by eight grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

Services were Jan. 7.

bcook@phillynews.com

610-313-8102

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