Charlie Baker '43
We rented an old tire shop on Fairmount Avenue and hired people who were served by the shelter; they were coming out of prison, out of drug and alcohol rehab, and off the street. What we found, which is an amazing thing, is that these people worked well with the disabled. The organization continued to grow because there was a need.
Charlie Baker with his wife, Weezie, with whom he co-founded Baker Industries.
Turk Thacher '62 is president of Baker Industries.
If you ask Charlie Baker ’43 about his proudest accomplishment in his close-to 90 years of life, he’ll tell you he hasn’t done nearly enough. But, ask one of the hundreds of Philadelphians whose lives he has impacted as the founder of Baker Industries, and you’ll hear a different story.
Baker Industries blends four segments of the low/no income vulnerable adult population (people with disabilities, former substance abusers, ex-offenders, and the homeless) together in a workforce development program, pays a living wage, and serves nearly 200 people – all without government funding. Charlie has been invited by his employees to weddings, is the first call when one of them achieves a life milestone, and is still affectionately called "dad" by many of the people he has guided during his career.
Charlie has long thrived on forging relationships with people, beginning with his teachers at The Haverford School. “The most outstanding feature of Haverford was the wonderful teaching staff," reflects Charlie. "I lost my mother at a young age and a big part of my life was gone. The School, to a great extent, filled that void.”
At age 11, Charlie started playing squash, a sport he still participates in several days each week. If it weren’t for his attempt at basketball in Middle School, he may never have discovered squash. “At my tremendous height of 5’6”, I spent all of my time sitting on the bench,” laughs Charlie. “The bench was on the side of the squash courts so my friend and I decided to join the team, thinking we could get some activity.” By the time Charlie graduated, he had won several Inter-Ac titles as a member of the squash team along with four varsity letters. He also competed in football, tennis, and gymnastics, and filled his time with Glee Club, Student Council and as a member of The Index editorial staff.
World War II was at its height when Charlie graduated from Haverford in 1943. He remembers spending summers in Ocean City, New Jersey, and seeing tar come in on the beaches from ships that had been torpedoed by the Germans. The war’s end was not in sight, and Charlie decided to enlist in the military. “My father convinced me it would be smart to go to West Point; at least I would come out as an officer,” says Charlie.
He enrolled just one month after receiving his diploma from Haverford, and the transition was challenging. “West Point was jarring,” recalls Charlie. “I went from a Main Line experience into a place where discipline was beyond belief. There was hazing, a lack of freedom, and incredibly demanding academics. But after I graduated, I appreciated it. Meeting people of all backgrounds from different states really did me a world of good.”
When I landed in Bremerhaven in 1947, the people were starving. Workers used to steal the lard from our Quartermaster warehouse – they’d smear it on their bodies, go home and scrape it off with a knife, put it on a slice of dark bread, and bring it for their sandwich the next day. By the time I left, there were restaurants and the economy was picking up; the progress in just three years was unbelievable.
Following his studies at West Point, Charlie served in the U.S. Army for seven years of active duty. He completed basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, traveled to several different military posts, and then spent three years in the Army of Occupation of Germany, where he was involved in the Berlin Airlift. “When I landed in Bremerhaven in 1947, the people were starving,” says Charlie. “Workers used to steal the lard from our Quartermaster warehouse – they’d smear it on their bodies, go home and scrape it off with a knife, put it on a slice of dark bread, and bring it for their sandwich the next day. By the time I left, there were restaurants and the economy was picking up; the progress in just three years was unbelievable. The Germans have the darnedest work ethic I’ve ever seen; every citizen who was able-bodied would spend one day a week picking up brick and stones to clean up the ruins. The town of Darmstadt on the Rhine River didn’t have one single standing building after we had flattened it through bombing.”
Though he enjoyed the people and the travel, Charlie wasn’t interested in making a career out of the military. After fulfilling his service in 1953, he went to work for a chemical business that was started by his grandfather. Charlie brought his youngest son, Justin, to work with him; Justin has severe epilepsy, making school difficult and limiting his options for employment. When Charlie sold the family business in 1980, he committed to helping Justin find work. “When we sold the business, we had one product, a furniture polish, that was such a small volume, nobody wanted it," says Charlie. "It was a product you made by hand in a barrel. When Justin couldn’t find a job, I got a guy from church to work with him in our garage making this product and selling it by mail order.”
Baker Industries was born. “We didn’t have a plan, a company name, or any funding, but we started to grow," states Charlie. "Both my wife and I feel that work is a very important element of life; it makes you feel satisfied.” Before long, the furniture polish business had outgrown Charlie’s garage and the company began a series of moves as more people joined the ranks.
“There are facilities, workshops, and programs for the low-functioning disabled,” states Charlie. “But back then, there was nothing for a person who was high-functioning to make them feel like they were really doing something important. I put the arm on every friend I have, and my wife, who’s a much better salesman than I am, put the arm on everybody she knew; we ended up doing work with Vanguard and Scott Paper Company.”
There are facilities, workshops, and programs for the low-functioning disabled. But back then, there was nothing for a person who was high-functioning to make them feel like they were really doing something important.
Within a few years, Baker Industries was an official nonprofit. A gentleman who ran a shelter in Philadelphia approached Charlie, intrigued by Baker Industries’ ability to pay a living wage to folks who typically struggle to find work. “We rented an old tire shop on Fairmount Avenue and hired people who were served by the shelter; they were coming out of prison, out of drug and alcohol rehab, and off the street," says Charlie. "What we found, which is an amazing thing, is that these people worked well with the disabled. The organization continued to grow because there was a need.”
Thirty-five years later, Baker Industries employs approximately 30 junior supervisors who all came through the program. Charlie estimates the organization has placed, on average, 50 people each year in stable, living wage jobs. “One of our board members is a product of our program,” says Charlie. “He works for a nonprofit in the city and has turned out to be a remarkable citizen.”
What’s his secret for success? “If you can’t be flexible, forget being in business for yourself,” says Charlie. “My wife and I never anticipated that we would be running an organization that employed the disabled, former prisoners, and people coming out of rehab, but it has turned out to be a wonderful challenge. We’re way past the age where we’re expected to be working, but it’s important for us to be in the office and interact with the people who have enriched our lives.”
Charlie is an amazing individual and role model. I am incredibly proud to have spent the last 13 years working at his shoulder. He has devoted the past 35 years to the nonprofit he and his wife founded, without taking any pay. Baker Industries is a result of their ideals and their desire to provide opportunities for those who have none, beginning with their son, Justin. As Charlie is fond of saying, ‘We take them from the welfare rolls and add them to the “workfare” rolls. Turk Thacher '62, president of Baker Industries