Each weekday morning for the past 15 years, Chet Baker sat down at his desk at the Jewish Journal and went about balancing the finances of the publication like a maestro in a symphony. His institutional memory was so sharp that when it came to crafting budgets, he often would correctly predict the revenue and the spending to within half a percentage point.
Chester “Chet” Baker, who served as the business manager of the Journal, died last week at the age of 79. He passed just a month after his wife of 56 years, Gail, died. The couple had two daughters, Marla Levy and Stephanie Baker Smith.
“He was so family-oriented, but family also included the community. It was just so important to him. He was honest, loving; he really was amazing. I’m 53 and I still went to him for advice. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said his daughter Marla Levy.
In recent months, when her father was hospitalized, he insisted on conducting the Journal’s business from his hospital bed and requested that family members bring his laptop computer. “When something meant something to him he put his all into it. Who else at 79 would be bringing their computer to the hospital to work?”
Baker grew up in Newton, attended the University of Arizona, and became an accountant. He met his wife Gail on a blind date, and after they married in 1963, the couple spent their honeymoon driving cross-country to Arizona where he returned to college. They eventually settled in Swampscott, and over the years Baker worked as an accountant for Gillette Company and Polaroid Corp., and in finance at Prime Poultry Corp. From 1992-2004 he owned a liquor store in Boston’s Mission Hill, and after he sold the business, he applied to work for the Journal.
“Chet applied for the job of bookkeeper,” said Mark Arnold, a former Journal publisher and editor. “I think the year was 2004. I liked him but felt him overqualified and told him so. When I didn’t follow up, he came to see me again. ‘I know you said I’m overqualified,’ he said, ‘and I am. But that’s good, because I can do more to help the Journal than a bookkeeper would. I can be the business manager. And I’m not going to go looking for another job. If you like my work, I’ll stay.’ His simple honesty won me over. So I hired him. And stay he did.
“Over the years, we would occasionally meet for lunch. I invariably found him to be an honest, humble sweet soul. I’ll miss him now that he’s gone.”
At the Journal, his colleagues recognized how deeply committed he was to the publication and the Jewish community. “He was also honest, sometimes to a fault. Never afraid to speak truth to power, he was passionate in defending what he believed to be in the best interest of the Journal. Although his accounting methods may have been old-school, nothing escaped him. He could provide any financial information we needed, often off the top of his head,” said Barbara Schneider, a former Journal publisher.
In recent years, as newspaper revenue declined across the country, he worked closely to help create a fiscal vision to keep the publication sustainable.
“One of the things I admired most about Chet was his steadfast tenacity. His historical perspective and thoroughness were critical to keeping the Jewish Journal going,” said Neil Donnenfeld, president of the Journal’s Board of Overseers. “For many years, the Journal walked a financial tightrope and Chet’s ability to provide intuitive insight and financial data is what allowed us to navigate through the tough times. More recently, it was a great joy to marvel at the financial results from the renaissance that has taken place at the Journal, of which Chet played a major role in helping to accomplish.”
Baker held one of the longest tenures at the publication. He was known for his work ethic, colorful ties, and often wore his yellow minion’s hat from the film “Despicable Me,” as he balanced the Journal’s finances while answering the phone.
“He knew how to listen and to give advice when needed. He was supportive and kind, and also brutally honest and fiercly independent and private. I will miss his smile, I will miss our morning ‘hellos’ and goodbye routines when he would always find something uplifting to say to brighten the rest of our day,” said Yulia Zhorov, a Journal graphic artist who worked with Baker for 15 years.
“Chet’s office door was always open. All different genres of music played, from opera to show tunes, oldies to classical. Yulia and I would always get a chuckle when hearing Belafonte’s ‘Day-O,’” said Andrew Fleischer, who is also a Journal graphic artist.
Lois Kaplan, the publication’s director of advertising, also worked with him for nearly two decades. “He was intelligent and incisive, strong-willed, dedicated to his family and extremely committed to the Journal. He was also a jokester and had a great sense of humor. I will greatly miss my kind, caring friend,” she said.
“Chet and I were morning people and we had our special time together before anyone else came to the office. We had lots of laughs, and I will miss his wit and sense of humor. He was able to get done anything you asked him to do very quickly,” said Marcy Grand, a senior account executive at the Journal.
Baker also served on the Temple Emanu-El Board of Directors for many years and was the synagogue’s treasurer. “We thank him for his leadership, his spirit, and for the many years and acts of kindness he performed within the community,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El.
In addition to his daughters, he was the devoted grandfather of Dylan Mitchell-Levy (Helene) and Rachel Kidd Levy. He was also the great-grandfather of Abigail Mitchell-Levy; loving brother of the late Carol Simons; son of the late Abraham and Rose (Finklestein) Baker. Chet also leaves loving nieces, nephews and dear friends as well as his precious dog Freda.
In lieu of flowers, expressions of sympathy may be made in Chet’s memory to The Jewish Journal, P.O. Box 2089, Salem, MA 01970.