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BAKER, Raymond F.

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Raymond F. Baker


by Jacob Knecht

Berkeley, California

(Reproduced from PALMS Volume 55(1) 2011 - copyright).

It is with great sadness that we report the loss of Raymond F. Baker, who died on 29 November 2010 of respiratory failure after a five-year batt le with pulmonary fibrosis. He dedicated 38 years of his life to the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum and is chiefly responsible for creating its world-class palm collection of more than 800 species. Ray was driven to increase the diversity of plants at the Lyon and was passionate about making it accessible to the community.

Ray was born in September 1945 in Passaic, New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in Geology after which he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, eventually bec oming a Captain. Afte rreturning from service in Vietnam, he was based in Kane’ohe, Hawai’i, for two years. It was there that his interest in plants blossomed. After six years in the Marines he resigned his commission and entered graduate school at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He took a job as a helper at Lyon Arboretum, the only university botanical garden located in a tropical rainforest in the United States, and quickly became deeply enamored with it. Because Ray wanted a fulltime position at th Arboretum so badly, he prolonged his graduate studies for seven years until there was a job opening.

Seated in 194 acres of wet tropical rainforest spread over challenging terrain with an average rainfall of 4190 mm (165 inches), Lyon Arboretum is a unique and exacting place in which to work. Working in the forest is far from glamorous or leisurely. Ray took the rugged terrain, voracious mosquitoes and frequent rainfall all in his stride. Though the weeds at Lyon are truly a force to be reckoned with, Ray never gave up against the constant and overwhelming onslaught. During much of his tenure there he worked ten-hour days, seven days a week. He inspired Arboretum staff and colleagues by his constant, steadfast nature. No matter how bad he may have felt on any one day, one would never have known from his attitude. He seemed to see the good side of all things, especially in the face of unexpected setbacks.

Ray came to memorize the exact location and even the accession number of each plant in the Arboretum, thus becoming intimately acquainted with over 5000 species. He studied their morphology and phenology, sharing his findings wit researchers around the world. He was fascinated by botanical diversity and was unceasingly curious to learn new things about plants. Ray was an invaluable resource to researchers, making himself available to accompany visiting scientists and was very generous with material and data. He had a talent for facilitating the movement of information and strengthening the ties among botanists, horticulturists and members of the community at large. Ray also designed much of the network of trails and pathways to make the collections more accessible to visitors, and chose the location of each new plant with an artist’s eye.

One of Ray’s great loves was palms. His goal was to have all the palm taxa represented, and today the Arboretum holds approximately 167 genera and 801 species. He personally collected 34 different accessions of palms from the wild, from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Venezuela, and worked with Bob Hirano to bring in many more. Ray cultivated relationships of trust and reciprocity with commercial palm growers and seed collectors such Jeff Marcus, Rolf Kyburz and De Armand Hull, resulting in the addition of over 700 accessions to the Arboretum. With Ray as the driving force, Lyon Arboretum staff became heavily involved in the IPS Seed Bank in the early 1990s. Thousands of seeds were collected from Lyon’s mature fruiting trees, cleaned, and shipped around the world. As fruit of this participation 133 more palm accessions were integrated into the garden. In 2009, Don Hodel named Pritchardia bakeri, a species from the Ko’olau Mountains on O’ahu, to honor Ray.

Ray served on the Boards of both the International Palm Society and Heliconia Society International (HSI). He was a founding member of HSI in 1985 and worked to make the Arboretum a major repository in Hawai’i for most of the world’s species from this group (the Zingiberales). His intensive work with this group helped him become and international expert on Zingiberales. He also worked closely with other botanists to care for and study the many accessions of rare and endangered gingers brought to the Arboretum.

Education was very important to Ray. He was always willing to reach out to individuals and help them identify palms. He began teaching classes on palms, gingers, heliconias, aroids, and Ficus at Lyon as early as 1982 and continued doing so until 2010. He also led many upper-Arboretum hikes for visitors. He organized the activities for volunteers and community groups at Lyon and spent weekends workin with them to chip away at the herbaceous and woody weeds. His knowledge and supervision was essential when it came to making sure that less knowledgeable volunteers did not unwittingly pull up or chop down rare plants.

Ray’s deteriorating health forced him to retire in September 2010. That same month it was announced that he had taken the extraordinary decision to create a fund to support the grounds and living collections of the Arboretum with a gift of $50,000 to start. Ray leaves an incredible legacy in what he cultivated and in the countless lives that he has inspired through his work, but with this generous endowment his dedication to the collections is immortalized. It is hard to imagine how a person like Ray could have been any more dedicated to and deeply invested in a cause. Ray’s ashes were deposited at the buttressed base of his favorite Ficus variegata at the arboretum. In the words of his wife Joyce, “His spirit lives on in all the plantings, all the rocks and streams, in the very air of his beloved Arboretum.” We will miss you, Ray.

Contributions to the Ray Baker Fund at Lyon Arboretum can be made in two ways. Funds for immediate needs can be made at: www.uhfoundation.org/RayBaker. Funds in support of the permanent endowment can be made at: www.uhfoundation.org/RayBaker Endowed. For further information, please contact Emily Fay at the University of Hawai’i Foundation (808) 956-5665 or e-mail emily.fay@uhfoundation.org.

The author thanks Joyce Baker, Liz Huppman, Karen Shigematsu, David Orr, David Lorence and John Mood for their help in composing this obituary.

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Has it been almost 10 years since Ray left us?  Wow, miss going to Lyons and talking with him..

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