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Among Friends

Dedication Spans a Life in the Spotlight

Promise -

Former Secretary of State Baker James A. Baker, III, and his wife, Susan Baker, joined former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as honorary chairs of MD Anderson’s 70th anniversary celebration May 5 at Minute Maid Park.
Photo by Pete Baatz

By Dawn Dorsey

James A. Baker, III’s connection with MD Anderson began long before he stepped on to the world stage or faced cancer in his personal life.

As a child, he celebrated birthdays and played hide-and-seek in his grandfather’s house, which later became MD Anderson’s first home.

“We’re big fans of MD Anderson,” Baker says. “To say we’re impressed with the nature of the treatment and the research is an understatement. It’s just absolutely fantastic in our view.”

When Baker’s grandfather, Captain James A. Baker, died in 1941, he left his seven-acre estate, The Oaks, to Rice University. The MD Anderson Foundation bought the property and converted the house into offices and the stables into laboratories. Now the land is a Midtown residential area; at one time it was on the outskirts of town.

Baker, who was 11 when his grandfather died, has fond memories of joining his many cousins for Sunday dinners at the house.

“The house was beautiful ― and a little imposing to a young child,” he says. “The dining room was always dark and scary, and we were sure ghosts lived there. Grandfather would dare us to walk all the way around the huge table ― then give us a nickel if we could do it.”

In 1969, when Baker was 38 years old and busy building a successful law practice and raising four young sons, his first wife, Mary, received a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer. Her death 16 months later prompted Baker’s lifelong interest in cancer.

When he began political life in 1975 as deputy secretary of commerce under President Gerald Ford, Baker was on MD Anderson’s advisory board, The University Cancer Foundation Board of Visitors. Increasingly important government positions came in close succession, and he led five presidential campaigns for three presidents. Baker was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, secretary of the treasury under President Ronald Reagan and White House chief of staff for Reagan and Bush.

Although government officials often step down from volunteer advisory commitments, Baker remained faithful to MD Anderson throughout his time in politics.

“My affiliation with MD Anderson was the only one I didn’t terminate when I went to Washington,” he says. “Its mission is so noble that I was never worried about anyone making claims of conflict or impropriety. I think that’s significant ― and it says a lot about MD Anderson.”

In 2009, Baker’s wife, Susan, received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and sought treatment at MD Anderson. Today she is cancer-free.

“The most impressive thing we saw at MD Anderson was the cheerfulness of the people, their concern and their attention to detail,” he says. “Having cancer is a frightening thing, and everyone makes you feel confident you’re in the best possible care.”

Baker, who travels extensively, says he often meets people who come to MD Anderson for cancer treatment.

“Everyone I talk to is universally positive about their experiences at MD Anderson,” he says. “Its reputation as one of the very best cancer centers is known beyond Houston, Texas or the United States ― it’s worldwide.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center