The Legacy of Capt. James A. Baker


Most people knew James Addison Baker as "Capt. Baker." Former U.S. secretary of state and Baker Institute honorary chair James A. Baker, III, called him "grandfather." One of Houston's most influential citizens, Capt. Baker headed the region"s premier law firm, led Houston"s banking industry and made sure Rice University was built and sustained.

At a recent Baker Institute lecture, author Kate Sayen Kirkland discussed the legacy of Capt. Baker and her book, "Captain James A. Baker of Houston, 1857-1941." Published as part of Rice University"s Centennial Celebration, Kirkland's book explores the archival records of Baker and his family, law firm and contemporaries, weaving together the history of Houston and the storied life of Capt. Baker.

"Kate has captured the essence of this monumental city leader who helped build Houston during the first half of the 20th century," said James A. Baker, III, who introduced Kirkland at the event. "In doing so, she has also told the story of the vision and dedication that it took to turn a small Texas town into a great international city."

More than that, the book portrays Capt. Baker "in a way his family remembers," Baker said. "Yes, grandfather was tough, he was tough as nails. And yes, he was not a person to be crossed. But there was another side to him ... a very soft side of this fearless civic leader."

Two months before his death in August 1941, Capt. Baker wrote a letter to his young grandson, Jimmy, who was away at summer camp. "You must mingle freely with your companions," he wrote. "Learn to know them all intimately sufficiently so to call each by his first name, and where they live. Take good care of yourself ... don"t eat too much nor play too hard, but do everything necessary or desirable to improve your physical condition and come home fully prepared to continue your studies here."

"That"s the grandfather I remember and still dream about," Baker said.

In her lecture, Kirkland recounted Capt. Baker's decisive role in events that began to unfold on Sept. 23, 1900, when he received an alarming telegram: His elderly millionaire client, William Marsh Rice, had died unexpectedly. Capt. Baker ultimately unraveled a plot to murder Rice and plunder his estate. Capt. Baker saved Rice"s fortune and championed the wishes of his deceased client by establishing the Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art -- today"s internationally acclaimed Rice University.

Capt. Baker and his partners transformed their law practice into Houston"s first nationally recognized law firm, which today is known globally as Baker Botts L.L.P. He chartered several Houston businesses and utility companies, developed two major regional banks, promoted real estate projects and instilled in his descendants a commitment to civic life.

Kirkland"s biography "is an excellent history of Houston during the period of his life and ... speaks to the great sense of pride among his family members who loved him as much as much they admired him and as much as they respected him," Baker said. Many members of the Baker family, including four of Capt. Baker"s 11 grandchildren, attended the Kirkland event.

Watch a video of the author's lecture, with an introduction by James A. Baker, III, above.