It didn’t take long for Nancy Baker to talk about her passion for all things Vancouver, but she was even quicker to bring up one other topic: her family.
Longtime friend Ginger Metcalf of Vancouver met her when the two were part of a group to create a charity auction for the YWCA some 27 years ago. The group would meet for breakfast every Saturday morning, and Baker would unofficially kick off the meetings the same way.
“Our session could not begin without a story about her grandchildren, especially her grandson, Nathan,” Metcalf said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met Nathan, but I know him very well because of the stories she would tell. We had sayings that we ended up calling Nathan-isms. Nancy’s family was first and foremost forever her priority.”
Baker, the first woman ever on the Port of Vancouver commission, died Friday night at 81 years old after suffering from dementia, according to her son, Randy Baker. She was born in Ridgefield and moved to Vancouver as a baby, and lived the rest of her life in the city.
She is survived by her son and her daughter, Mindy Akers, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. While he was growing up, Randy Baker remembered, his mother worked at construction companies, a furniture company and eventually for the port, where she worked for 14 years before joining the commission.
“She was a single mom,” Randy Baker said. “It was a challenge for her to provide for the family and take care of the two of us. It was more unique back then, but she did a good job juggling work responsibilities and raising us.”
Randy Baker said he was initially surprised when his mother ran for public office, but he was proud of her and excited to see her taking bigger challenges. Once he and his sister went off to college, he said, his mother started participating in more community events.
“Her passion for Vancouver was tremendous,” he said. “She really devoted a lot of her time and energy, especially after she retired, to nonprofit organizations. She loved that job as commissioner of the port. She was very disappointed when that came to an end.”
Baker didn’t seek re-election for a third term on the port commission in 2015 after a contentious end to her 12 years on the commission. She was part of the three-person commission to approve a lease for what would have been the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil transfer terminal. Those close to her said the oil terminal decision and personal reaction many in the community had to it took a toll on Baker.
“She was true to her convictions with regard to her work at the port, both as an employee and later as a port commissioner,” Metcalf said. “To the extent that when it came to making some extremely difficult decisions for the port as a commissioner, it created some distance with some of her professional colleagues and community leaders. That was extremely sad.”
Jim Mains lived a few houses down from Baker and could see how hard the oil terminal decision and reaction to it were on her. When her husband, Ray Barney, wasn’t physically able to decorate their Vancouver home for Christmas, Mains and his family did. Once the port decision was over, Mains organized a group of about 25 people, some of whom supported the terminal and some who didn’t, to go over to Baker’s house and carol for them for another Christmas.
“That made it feel like people had appreciated what she had done for the community,” Mains said. “It helped some people connect with her again.”
Mains said he would go over and visit with her regularly. Like many others who spoke to her, Baker would only want to discuss family or the community.
“She would talk about running for city council or committees she could join,” Mains said. “I would tell her to just enjoy her retirement. She was looking for anything to put her energy and effort behind again. I could see where mentally she was starting to go downhill, but she really wanted to give back.”
When Pat Jollota, local historian and former Vancouver city councilor, was looking for people to join the board of the Children’s Justice Center, Baker was one of the first people she reached out to.
“If they tried to cut funding for it, she would be yelling as loud as I was,” Jollota said. “That’s what I wanted.”
Outside of her professional life, Jollota said that Baker was witty and relaxing to spend time with. She also said that Baker and Barney were incredibly devoted to each other.
“Their closeness was a model for married couples, especially the mutual respect and affection they demonstrated to one another,” Jollota said.
Metcalf said it’s sad that Baker died before the port’s Terminal 1 redevelopment plan was completed, as the preservation and future plans for the site were what Baker wanted to see happen there.
“I always admired her for being the true spirit of the port,” Metcalf said. “If there was a cheerleader to be nominated for the Port of Vancouver, it would be Nancy Baker.”