When Dorothy Baker joined the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce in 1984, she planned a quick stop — perhaps a year — to help South Florida’s oldest black chamber stabilize after floundering for months without a director.
She stayed for 20 years, stepping down as president and chief executive officer in 2004.
“Dorothy Baker was an inspiration, a thought leader and a friend to the entire community of Dade County,” said Gordon Eric Knowles, the fourth and current president of Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. “She fought for opportunities and equality for the black business community, while engaging in all concerns of our community.”
Baker died of complications from Parkinson’s on Thursday. She was 83.
Bill Diggs, her successor who served eight years at the chamber and is now president of the Mourning Family Foundation, recalled his friend and mentor.
“Dorothy left me with a great organization,” he said. “She was a consummate professional. We talked often during my time. Whenever I had an issue or I needed help, she gave sage advice.”
But Baker, perhaps tapping her experience as a former public school teacher and professor and administrator at Florida Memorial College, made Diggs feel as if he came up with the solution on his own. “It was like pulling my opinion out of me. That’s an art,” he said. “She was a wonderful lady. She never left the chamber.”
After Baker did, indeed, leave the chamber, Knowles renamed the annual golf tournament, the Dorothy Baker Invitational. “Dot, as she was fondly known by her close friends, was the kind of person who was a stranger to no one.”
The chamber’s vice president of finance and operations, Beverly James, looked to Baker as family.
“She was like a mother to me,” said James, who was hired by Baker in 1988. “She would tell you the truth even if you did not like it if it was for your own good. This lady had more love in her heart for the whole world — the most loving person I’ve ever met.”
Baker, born May 2, 1934, in Sanford, Florida, earned her degree in elementary education from Tuskegee University in Alabama and her master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts. When she joined the struggling chamber she remembered feeling, “I had a monumental task to prove myself,” she told the Miami Herald in 1999.
Black businesses often dismissed the chamber as irrelevant, a shadow of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, perhaps forgetting that it was founded in 1974 because the black business community was not allowed or accepted into the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce just a decade earlier.
“We’re looked at as the poor little black chamber. I would be inhuman to say that it doesn’t get to me. But I put those feelings in the background,” she told the Herald in 1991.
Baker pushed herself and others to step up participation and take advantage of chamber services. “We don’t make house calls,” she once said. The chamber moved from Liberty City to a larger building at 100 S. Biscayne Blvd., which today also houses the Mourning Family Foundation.
Baker served as a business consultant and took on a leadership role in international trade missions to Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, Spain and France. She lectured at colleges and universities and other chambers of commerce nationwide. She served on numerous boards, including Goodwill Industries, Beacon Council and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Not a day goes by that I do not thank Dorothy Baker for holding this wonderful organization together for all of us to have. Under her leadership we were financially free of scandal and open without interruption since our inception in 1974. That is a great testament to her hard work and vision.
Bill Diggs, former Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce president, in a 2008 Miami Herald column.
During her tenure, the chamber boosted its voice in the community and ramped up its membership.
“I so admired her commitment to opportunity for everyone. She worked with vision and decency and perseverance. Our community has been blessed by her,” said David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida and former publisher of the Miami Herald.
At home, Baker also served as an example to her family. “She was totally my role model,” said her daughter Yolonda Marshall, deputy chief officer with the education group, New Leaders. “She modeled for us exactly what we have gone on to become as mothers and as professionals. We always knew we were her No. 1 priority.”
Baker’s survivors also include her husband Syerenees Baker; daughters Sabrina Floyd, Katrina Rolle and Tonya Turner; stepdaughter Darlene Wright; 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; and her brother Robert Reader. She will be buried Tuesday at Tallahassee National Cemetery. A memorial in Miami is being planned.