Frank Kelsey Baker Sr. — community leader and the award-winning former publisher of the Fort Stockton Pioneer — died January 26 in Austin with Mary Lea, his bride of 63 years and the love of his life, at his side. He lived 84 bountiful years filled with career and community accomplishments, faithful service to the Lord, and exuberant love for his family and many friends.
Frank was born on May 12, 1934 in San Angelo to George and Emily Baker. George had recently purchased the Fort Stockton Pioneer after serving as publisher of the Devil’s River News in Sonora, and the family had relocated to Fort Stockton. Since their new town had no hospital, George drove over dirt roads to visit Emily as she awaited Frank’s arrival in San Angelo.
In many ways, Frank was preordained to become a small-town newspaper publisher. From a very tender age, he accompanied his dad on news reporting junkets and had vivid memories of standing under the hood of the old Speed Graphic camera, looking through the ground glass at the upside-down image of the subject. As a teenager, Frank showed a keen sense of entrepreneurship that would serve him well for the advertising side of the newspaper business. One example is his famous doughnut route, which at George’s urging evolved into ad sales after Frank had built relationships with his doughnut customers all over town.
Frank attended Fort Stockton schools and graduated from Fort Stockton High School in 1952. While in high school, he played tackle and linebacker for the Panthers, played trombone in the band, and participated in dramatics and debate. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1956. At UT, he was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha and Alpha Delta Sigma professional fraternity, and he served on the Daily Texan staff.
While a freshman at UT, Frank met and courted a Longview girl, Mary Lea Castleberry. Thus began a 67-year love affair that would serve as a pure example of devotion for his children and grandchildren. Mary Lea earned her degree in interior design from UT in 1955 and the two were married later that year in Longview.
First child Susan came along in 1959, soon followed by Frank Kelsey Jr. (Kelly) in 1961 and then Katherine Anne in 1963. Frank’s children were his deepest pride, and they grew up knowing that he cherished them and would always support them on their journeys into adulthood.
Fresh out of college, Frank landed his first newspaper job as editor and advertising manager of The Llano News. Five months later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he and Mary Lea were eventually posted to Germany. He served in those Cold War times as a radio repairman and also played trombone in the Combat Command “B” military band.
Frank’s newspaper career was long and distinguished. Following his stint in the army, he and Mary Lea relocated to Fort Stockton in 1958. There, his father George brought him into the family business as advertising manager of the Pioneer. Upon George’s election to the Texas House of Representatives, Frank purchased the Pioneer from his parents and became publisher in 1971.
Although his first love was the advertising and business side of publishing, Frank gradually embraced his talent for writing (inherited from mom Emily) and realized that he enjoyed writing news and features almost as much as selling ad space. He was known for his breezy, folksy writing style, especially evident in his weekly column, Pipe Lines. Somehow, he always managed to come up with pithy topics for the column, which was an entertaining perspective on the state of his world.
During Frank’s 17 years as publisher, the Pioneer and its staff garnered numerous statewide awards. Between 1981 and 1987, the newspaper was a five-time winner of the Sweepstakes Award from the Texas Press Association (TPA) for best overall semi-weekly in Texas in its circulation group. The Pioneer also won many awards in various categories on both the state and regional levels between 1965 and 1988.
In 1984, Frank was elected president of the TPA, the first time in the association’s history that the son of a past president took the helm (George had served as president in 1962-1963).
Frank was proud of his West Texas roots and was a prominent member of the Fort Stockton community. He served as president of the Fort Stockton chapter of Rotary International and received the club’s prestigious Paul Harris award. A highlight for him and Mary Lea came in 1988, when he was named Outstanding Citizen of Fort Stockton and she was named First Lady. Both enjoyed riding together that year in the Christmas parade as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.
An Eagle Scout, Frank was a longtime scoutmaster and received the Silver Beaver Award from the Concho Valley Boy Scout Council in 1981. He served as district chairman for the Concho Valley Council and also sat on the board of the Permian Basin Council of Girl Scouts USA. Other community leadership roles included president and treasurer of the local United Way for several years, president of the Fort Stockton Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Pecos County Hospital Board of Governors.
Frank’s career and life took a new turn with the sale of the Pioneer in 1988. It was the end of an era for the newspaper, which had been continuously owned and managed by the Baker family for 54 years. After finishing coursework in accounting at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Frank started a tax and accounting service. At age 50 he fulfilled a lifelong dream and earned his pilot’s license, taking great joy in exploring West Texas from the air with his family.
In 2006, Frank and Mary Lea moved to Austin to be closer to their grandchildren and enjoy the city they had fallen in love with as UT students many years before. In Austin, Frank continued his tax business and served Fort Stockton clients for several years. Frank and Mary Lea relished their years in Austin and, in addition to their church involvement, enjoyed participating in UT’s LAMP program for senior alumnae.
Frank’s faith in Jesus Christ was a guiding light through his entire life. He was a lifelong Presbyterian and lent his beautiful tenor voice to the choir from high school right up until a few years before his death. He served as elder, deacon, Sunday school teacher, and treasurer at First Presbyterian in Fort Stockton for many years. He also served as moderator of the Tres Rios Presbytery and became a lay pastor, acting as a visiting minister in small towns throughout West Texas. After they moved to Austin, Frank and Mary Lea made Westminster Presbyterian their new church home, where Frank served as a deacon, an enthusiastic member of the choir, and on the church treasury team and participated in the church’s ministry to Austin’s homeless community. In his final years, Frank was an ardent member of Bible Study Fellowship and enjoyed attending Grace Covenant Church with Mary Lea.
Frank is survived by his wife, Mary Lea Baker, of Austin; son Frank Kelsey Baker Jr. (Jane) of Austin; daughters Katherine Kuhn (David) of Odessa and Susan Pazera (John) of Medellín, Colombia, South America; sisters Anne Gifford (John) of Allen and Kay Baker (Yannick Wets) of Sonoma, California; brothers Robert Baker (Carolyn) of Fort Collins, Colorado and John Baker (Anne) of Highland Springs, Virginia; a brother-in-law, Richard Castleberry of Austin; two grandsons, Will Baker (Zoe) of Dallas and Ben Baker (Monica) of New York, New York; a granddaughter, Natalie Baker, a senior at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts; and many beloved nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces and -nephews.
Two brothers, Chris Baker and Sam Baker, and two infant sons, George Richard and Steven Robert, preceded Frank in death.
Following a private graveside service, a celebration of Frank’s life will be held February 9, 2019 at 2 p.m., at the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Stockton, with the Rev. Dr. James R. Miles officiating.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to First Presbyterian Church of Fort Stockton, Grace Covenant Church, or Westminster Presbyterian Church (the latter two in Austin). The family would like to thank the staffs of Brookdale Spicewood Springs, Brookdale Westlake, and Hospice Austin for their loving care of Frank.