by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
Unfortunately, over the years, a number of businesses have left Homewood.
Fortunately, there was William “Willie” Baker.
He and his iconic “Baker’s Dairy” store never left.
“He loved Homewood like that was his own family,” Baker’s niece, Rose Price, told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “There’s no one who could have passed through Homewood and did not know about Baker’s Dairy, and his corned beef sandwiches; the car wash…he touched a lot of lives in Homewood.”
“Why would he leave?” his son, Curtis Baker, told the Courier. “He had started something in the ‘60s, so why would he leave instead of making things around him better? And that’s what he tried to do.”
Baker, the iconic, can’t-miss owner of Baker’s Dairy and Mr. B’s Car Wash on Hamilton Avenue, died on April 29 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 79.
“He was like a father figure to me,” said Fess Stanton, 52, who’s been coming to Baker’s Dairy since he was a kid. “He’s one of those guys, you wanted him to live forever.”
“This is a shock,” added Doug Rey, 57, another longtime Homewood resident and Baker’s Dairy customer.
“I always figured Mr. Baker would be around.”
There are business owners, and there are business owners who are also difference-makers. Ask Stanton, Rey, and the thousands who have walked into Baker’s Dairy, or the car wash, or “The Rip Off,” and they’ll tell you that Baker truly made a difference in his community, and the people of his community.
Sure, making money is at the heart of a for-profit business, but for Baker, he made sure to take care of his customers. “If somebody came in his store and said, ‘I don’t have enough money for bread, most likely my uncle would have just given it to you and said, ‘don’t worry about it,’” Price said.
Baker donated to Homewood football teams. He held bike and toy giveaways. He instilled in his own children the need to “stick by your values,” Curtis Baker told the Courier in an exclusive interview, May 19.
“Don’t stray against your beliefs. Work hard, work smart. Get an education, that was the main thing.”
Baker never strayed from Homewood.
Coming to Pittsburgh in 1959 from his birthplace, Montgomery, Ala., the young Willie Baker would soon learn the ropes of starting his own business. He took classes at Community College of Allegheny County, then later worked at Country Belle Dairy, before opening his first Baker’s Dairy store in 1968 on Brushton Avenue in Homewood.
Baker, at one time, had three locations—Brushton, Centre Avenue in the Hill District, and Hamilton Avenue. The Brushton and Centre locations eventually closed, and Baker’s sole focus was his 7300 Hamilton Ave. location.
As the years passed, Homewood residents grew to respect, cherish and admire Baker. He did the same to them. In this modern-day era where the big-box stores do all they can to force the “little guys” out of business, the bond that Baker’s Dairy had created with Homewood residents kept the lights on and the cash register rolling.
But Baker didn’t stop there. “The Rip Off” was sort of a “Black arcade,” Price described. Curtis Baker said it was situated next to the store on Hamilton, where people could play on the numerous pinball machines and pool tables. Curtis Baker said The Rip Off opened in the early 1980s.
Years later, Baker used the space next to his store to open Mr. B’s Car Wash, which, to this day, is a popular spring and summertime attraction (you can’t ride around in a dirty car, of course…).
And then, there was “Pete.” As in, every boy’s name was “Pete” to Baker.
“He named everybody Pete,” Stanton recalled in an interview with the Courier’s J.L. Martello. “‘Go on, Pete,’ ‘Keep going, Pete,’ ‘How much you need, Pete’…everybody was Pete. Even if he knew your name, you were still Pete. Even to this day, he still called them Pete.”
“My uncle was funny, he’s gonna call you ‘Pete,’” Price told the Courier in an exclusive interview, May 19. “And ladies were ‘mam.’”
Stanton can even recall the days when he and his friends would collect pop bottles. “(Mr. Baker) used to give me 10 cents for a nickel pop bottle, that’s how long I’ve been here. We used to (turn in) the pop bottles and go to the (Homewood) Coliseum and go skating. You needed money to go skating, Mr. Baker gave it to you.”
In recent years, Baker became a focal point for local media to contact, as talks are ongoing about a Homewood revitalization. Last year, a “Homewood Comprehensive Community Plan” was unveiled, with a step-by-step process on how new businesses and housing would spring up in Homewood in its future. Local media always asked for Baker’s opinion, as a man who had never abandoned his community. He was proud of staying put. In his mind, he was where he wanted to be.
Baker also was the recipient of numerous community awards. He and his wife, Patricia, could be seen at community functions and events. Patricia Baker is the operator of Images Art Gallery, on Frankstown.
In this era of the coronavirus pandemic, the traditional way of having a wake or a funeral has been altered. Baker’s family decided to have a private homegoing service for Baker on May 8 at Spriggs-Watson Funeral Home on N. Lang Ave., then invite the community to a balloon release celebration for Baker in front of Baker’s Dairy. The flyer, posted on social media, read that the balloon release was a great way “to honor the life of a Homewood legend.”
What soon followed was something that even Baker’s family couldn’t fathom—a massive display of people coming out in the rain to celebrate Baker. Kids and adults alike came with red and gold balloons, while photos and videos were shared all over social media. Baker’s hearse was stopped right in front of his iconic store. Then Baker took one last trip around Homewood, his son, Curtis, explained. The hearse traveled from Hamilton to Brushton, where Baker opened his first store. The hearse then made its way onto Frankstown, where Images is located. Throughout this last ride, people were seen screaming and shouting in jubilation and admiration for Baker, the entrepreneur, the man who helped so many, the man who never left Homewood.
“It made us all want to cry,” Curtis Baker told the Courier, speaking for the family. “We were at a disbelief at actually how many people turned out. Overwhelmed, overjoyed…we knew that he was a powerful businessman and a strong individual, but we didn’t know all those people felt the same way.”
Pittsburgh media personality Chris Moore interviewed Baker in 2014, as part of Moore’s series on spotlighting positive people and places in Pittsburgh’s African American community. When Moore mentioned to Baker that he was “an anchor” in the community, Baker responded: “I try to be…I’ve enjoyed serving them, and I hope they enjoyed some of my work that I put out, and I try to be the person that they can always depend on.”
FEATURED IMAGE: ROSE PRICE, niece of William “Willie” Baker, places a balloon and flowers on the entrance to Baker’s Dairy in Homewood. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
REMEMBERING WILLIAM BAKER—Granddaughter January Johnson, niece Rose Price, and granddaughters Deirdre Baker and Tamara Freeman, after the May 8 balloon release celebration for the iconic owner of Baker’s Dairy. According to Curtis Baker, William Baker’s son, Baker’s Dairy will eventually reopen.
A ‘CLASSIC’ MOMENT—Ralph Watson, far right, owner of Classic Events!, bestowed awards in 2017 to William Baker, second from right, and his wife, Patricia. Also pictured is Melvin Hubbard El, far left.
REMEMBERING A HOMEWOOD LEGEND, WILLIAM “WILLIE” BAKER, the iconic owner of Baker’s Dairy. (Photos by Courier photographer J.L. Martello)