Philanthropist’s legacy continues through Baker Scholars
By Carol Cummings (’92, L)
In 1951, Jerry Baker became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he completed his studies at the Bowling Green Business University, the predecessor to WKU’s Gordon Ford College of Business. After a long and successful career at Airgas of Midamerica, a company started by his father in 1948, Baker expanded his already generous philanthropic interests by making an eight-figure estate commitment to WKU in 2006.
When Baker passed away in 2017, that gift translated into a $10 million endowment commitment from the Jerry E. Baker Foundation for student scholarships, with annual investment earnings from the endowment gifted to WKU. Combined with Baker’s previous support, the Jerry E. Baker Student Scholarship Fund annually awards around $500,000 to WKU students pursuing majors in Music, Dance, Theatre, Art or Horticulture—all areas that were near to Baker’s heart. An avid athletics fan, Baker also designated scholarships to support Hilltopper Basketball and Lady Topper Basketball student-athletes.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, more than 100 students received these awards. We sat down with a few of these Baker Scholars to learn more about them and to see how Baker’s dream is reaping countless benefits for them.
“Without the Baker Scholarship, I would not have been able to afford to come back to WKU this year,” Denny said. “This award has allowed me to wrap up my undergraduate career to graduate with two degrees in May 2020.”
Denny’s goal is to attend graduate school, earn a master’s degree in Fine Art and one day work at an art foundry or nonprofit while still continuing to create her own art.
“Receiving a scholarship has given me the time I needed to not only finish my degrees, but also to achieve my other goals,” she explained. “I was able to take the time to study abroad and also apply for and receive a FUSE (Faculty-Undergraduate Student Engagement) grant to complete research on iron casting and large-scale sculpture. I’ve also been able to experience other mediums and techniques, and to make good connections with faculty and other students in the Art Department.”
“It means a lot to my family, and it helping me pay for school and complete my college experience at WKU,” she explained. “I have received nothing but positive encouragement from faculty and staff who are helping me achieve my goals, and this is just one more thing to encourage me to follow my dreams.”
During her time at WKU, Bowers also received a FUSE grant that allowed her to travel to Washington, D.C., for a week. She is currently working with the Kentucky Museum to create an online exhibit to support her Honors College capstone experience and thesis. All of these experiences have combined to help her hone in on her career goals.
“Originally, my goal was to be an art history curator,” Bowers shared. “However, after completing internships in a couple of museums, I realized that curators don’t get to interact with the public every day, and that’s one thing I want to do. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the education departments at several museums, where I’ve found a love for working with children and visitors of all ages to make sure they get the most out of their museum visits.”
This aligns perfectly with Baker’s vision, as his legacy also included the Downing Museum on the property of his former home on Morgantown Road in Bowling Green.
Schiess said the Baker Scholarship has opened up the opportunity for a fifth year of studies.
“I now have the option to take classes and learn more without being rushed,” she explained. “I don’t have to worry about how I will manage school and jobs. This scholarship has been a confidence boost that has reassured me I’m on the right path.”
The scholarship has also provided much-needed financial security.
“My parents have always been financially and emotionally supportive of me and my brother,” Schiess said. “But college is so expensive, especially for two kids, so we try not to burden them. This scholarship has helped me do that. It has also allowed me the option for graduate school in the future, and it has kept me from taking out more loans to continue my education.”
Schiess plans to pursue her passions of dance and education to one day teach at the collegiate level.
“That is my dream job, and I can’t imagine anything better,” she said. “I would be doing what I loved, and it would be the perfect career to have a family. I feel honored to be a part of Mr. Baker’s legacy”
“My mother has gone through cancer,” the Music Education major explained. “If college wasn’t paid for, I wouldn’t have been able to go. Before I received the scholarship, I was worried about the jobs I would need to have to afford it. But I don’t associate stress with college anymore.”
Reed has also been able to be involved in numerous campus organizations. She plays oboe in the symphonic band, is part of the drum line in the Big Red Marching Band and is member in training with Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity, as well as a member of Black Women of Western and the Black Student Alliance. In addition, Reed is active with the George and CJ Nichols Intercultural Student Engagement Center (ISEC).
“ISEC has given me a place to talk about things with people who know my struggles,” Reed said. “I was raised in a mostly white community, and I never had the opportunity to connect with people like me. ISEC hosts a lot of activities and that helps me be involved in campus life. I’m also one of the few Music majors in the program, so I’m able to help people in ISEC have a different perspective.”
In addition to pursuing a master’s degree, Reed’s future plans include starting her own marching or symphonic band.
“The scholarship allowed me to go to New York City for a showcase in January 2019, as it completely funded my trip,” said. “My department head promoted the trip, since it is such an important part of our major. The scholarship applied directly to my tuition, which allowed me to take more classes and cover extra expenses. During the trip, we were able to perform at Pearl Studios in the heart of the city, and we auditioned for casting agencies, got business insights and met with WKU alumni. It was great for networking.”
Iyer is majoring in Musical Theatre with minors in Dance and Art Administration. During her time at WKU, she has performed in plays, has served as Events Coordinator for Potter College of Arts & Letters’ Dean’s Council of Students and is a member of Alpha Psi Omega theatre fraternity. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school with the goal of becoming a theatre teacher at the collegiate level.
“I would love to promote Indian classical dance and show how it benefits American performance,” Iyer said.
Horticulture, another area of focus for the Baker Scholarships, pays tribute to Baker’s love for the great outdoors. In fact, when he was just 10 years old, Baker dreamed of being a forest ranger rather than a businessman. His years of national and international travel and research led him to translate his love for nature into a peaceful oasis by creating an arboretum on the grounds of his home.
“All of the places I visited, someone had created,” Baker shared in 2006. “I realized that if nobody ever crated these places, we would never have them available to enjoy.”
Today, many Horticulture students at WKU gain hands-on experience by working at the Baker Arboretum.
“I started my own nursery, Tolley Farms, in 2017, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he explained. “A week after I graduated from high school, I started my business with 1,000 boxwoods. Now I have 5,000 plants in total and just ordered 7,500 more. The nursery is in my hometown, but I plan to move it Bowling Green after I graduate. It’s a wholesale nursery focused on landscapers and contractors. I like the idea of growing plants in volume, rather than one or two. I would like to eventually provide jobs for more people, especially students who work with the nursery on campus or the Baker Arboretum.”
Tolley’s entrepreneurial journey actually began when he was in middle school, when his dad got some honeybees and started a chicken business.
“I made mistakes, learned from it and knew what to do next time,” Tolley explained. “I didn’t enjoy waking up early or being up late with the chickens—at one time we had 300-400 birds—but I continue to work with the bees. We now have 25 hives and harvest about 600 pounds of honey a year, which I sell to stores in my hometown.”
Even with his busy work schedule, Tolley has found time to be involved in campus activities. Besides working at the Baker Arboretum, he has held leadership positions with Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and has also been a part of the Interfraternity Council, Omicron Delta Kappa and the Block and Bridle Club.
“Receiving a scholarship has allowed me to be more involved,” Tolley explained. “I did not have to worry about being able to afford school. Being recognized as a Baker Scholar is a huge honor. WKU has provided me with an opportunity to explore my horizons. I wouldn’t change my decision to come to WKU for the world.”
“The Baker Scholarship provided me with the opportunity to study agriculture abroad and really learn how other countries do agriculture and experience mass production in another country,” he said. “We were able to learn more about the production of broccoli and fresh-cut flowers, and it was interesting to see how those businesses operate.”
At WKU, Simmons is a member of Sigma Chi fraternity. He said that while WKU is a large campus, it still feels like home.
“Professors always take time to cater to each student and foster an environment that creates successful people—not just students, but people,” he said. “Everyone really cares about my progress.”
After graduation, Simmons plans to continue his education and pursue a Master of Science in Agriculture. Ideally, he will stay at WKU and hopes to one day work with emerging horticulture trends like hemp and cannabis.
“I’m currently taking a Specialty Crop class and a class about hemp,” Simmons explained. “This is the first offering of the Specialty Crop class focused on indoor production and medical usage of cannabis, and the hemp class focuses on industrial production. I really believe that how people think about hemp is beginning to change. This will be a huge economic value to our state, and it is really cool to see.”
“Receiving this scholarship meant the world to me,” she said. “I would not have been able to continue on to graduate school without it. The Baker Scholarship has made me realize that my dreams can come true and are in grasp with continued persistence and a strong work ethic. Without the scholarship my time at WKU would have been shorted. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I knew I wasn’t finished learning and challenging myself.”
Decker’s career goals are to continue in the field of horticulture and branch out into sustainability.
“It’s important for us to help take care of our Earth and help it just as much as it helps us,” Decker explained. “I am lucky enough to be able to have the opportunity of higher education to do this to the best of my ability.”
Outside of her studies, Decker spends her time conducting research at the Baker Arboretum, taking classes at the Preston Health & Activities Center and assisting Dr. Martin Stone, WKU Professor of Horticulture, with some of his classes.
“I owe the start of my career to what Jerry Baker has left behind,” she said. “Through my work with the Arboretum, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about his life and what he loved. His kindness and generosity continues to transcend throughout my life and many others’. I am forever thankful to represent his legacy.”
In 2018, WKU President Timothy C. Caboni (’94) reflected on Baker’s “clear and powerful” vision that will pave the way for countless future scholars.
“His philanthropic spirit endures at WKU and stands as an example to others,” he said.
Keith Carwell (’69, A) of Bowling Green, Ky., Executive Director of the Baker Foundation said Jerry Baker serves as inspiration.
“His life demonstrated that through education and dedication you can attain true success while remaining humble, kind and caring,” he said.