Robert H. (Bob) Baker of Rancho Santa Fe, California, passed away peacefully in his home on September 5, 2021 at the age of 89.
From homeless childhood to decorated soldier, family man, self-made iconic business man, founder of the Bob Baker Auto Group “Where it’s so nice to be nice”, devout Catholic and generous philanthropist.
Bob was born on October 1, 1931, in Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles to parents Halem and Dori Baker and was the oldest of their four children. He grew up in Los Angeles during the difficult Depression years. To help his struggling family make ends meet, 8-year-old Bob sold magazines (purchased for 8 cents and sold for a dime), then took on a newspaper route. When he was 10, his parents divorced and Bob spent the rest of his childhood in foster homes, boardinghouses and on the streets. Grandmother Monnie assured that the grandchildren had a good Catholic education and in the back of Bob’s classroom at St. Agnes School hung a picture of St Therese whose eyes seemed to follow him around the room. After learning that her feast day was the same as his birthday, he came to adopt her as his patron saint.
As a young teenager, his dream was to become a Catholic priest, however sons from divorced families weren’t allowed to enter the priesthood. Instead, in January of 1951, at the age of 19, Bob enlisted in the Army to fight in the Korean War. He eventually reached the front lines in February 1953. He fought in the battle for Outpost Harry, a strategic position on a tiny hilltop on the direct route to the South Korean capital of Seoul. The embattled troops were told to “hold at all costs.” Later in life Bob produced a documentary by that name, Hold at All Costs, to commemorate the heroes who fought and died or survived that battle.
Bob participated in dozens of harrowing night patrols and once volunteered to go on a mission from which he was told he wouldn’t return. While preparing for the mission he prayed and made a pact that if he survived, he would return to California, marry his dear friend and wartime pen pal, Sherrill King, raise a family, become successful and serve God. Before he could complete his “suicide” mission, the Chinese attacked two hours earlier than expected. Bob had to retreat through the minefields, leading two squads safely back to the main bunker at Outpost Harry. He was on the front lines until a truce was declared and his Army service ended in December 1953. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals, among others, for his actions in combat.
When Bob returned to civilian life, the first thing he did after getting off the ship in San Francisco was call his future wife, Sherrill King, to ask if she was married yet. She broke off her engagement to her then fiancé and they were married 6 months later. With the aid of the GI Bill, Bob soon enrolled in business classes at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.
Although his estranged father was a used car wholesaler and his uncles were car salesmen, Bob had vowed not to enter the car business. However, with no income he reluctantly agreed to sell cars at a friend’s L.A. Ford dealership. He had intended for car sales to be a temporary bridge for a better career, but when Sherrill became pregnant with their first child, the need of a steady income induced him to stay. Bob was a natural salesman with a quick and sparkling smile, and he became an instant success. From sales he was promoted into sales management and eventually tasked with running auto dealerships.
In 1965, he had an opportunity to buy his own dealership in the Midwest by scraping together his life savings and a loan through his mother-in-law mortgaging her home, and moved his young family to Indiana. He established and grew Bob Baker Chevrolet in Indianapolis into a huge success, while dreaming of returning to his Southern California roots. He eventually sold his Indianapolis dealership and returned his family to San Diego, purchasing what was University Ford, next door to a dealership he used to manage. He steadily expanded and built up the Bob Baker Auto Group of dealerships through his commitment and appreciation to his customers and employees. By establishing numerous successful car dealerships throughout San Diego County, his financial success allowed him the ability to live out his true passion of serving God by helping the less fortunate.
Bob was passionate about giving back to his community and generously shared his financial success through millions of dollars of donations to help those that needed it most. Bob didn’t just give but became personally involved in programs to assist Catholic schools and churches, to support homeless families and veterans, and to fund scholarships for those that couldn’t afford the opportunity, among a vast array of other generous philanthropic endeavors.
Bob and Sherrill raised a family of five children and despite having the demands of developing and running a start-up business from scratch, Bob would carve out the time to pile the young family into the station wagon and later motor home to take them on road trips down to Florida, out to Colorado dude ranches or to campground get-aways in order to create special family memories. When he wasn’t tending to his business, his family or his charitable causes, Bob loved to fish in the Pacific Ocean or in the lakes and streams of the High Sierra around Mammoth Lakes.
He eventually retired and sold some of his dealerships to various existing auto dealers. His youngest son purchased and expanded his Carlsbad, CA locations and is continuing the Bob Baker Auto Group legacy and family business model. Bob’s philanthropy continues and he will be remembered for his kindness and generosity and of course his million-dollar smile; a true embodiment of his business motto of “Where it’s so nice to be nice”.
Bob was preceded in death by his beloved wife Sherrill, his brothers Dick and Ron Baker and his sister Peggy Stewart. He is survived by his children and their families; Michael, Bridget and Austin Baker, Elizabeth and Robert Treloar, Theresa, Sean and Eric Hertel, Mary and Mike Ross and Chris, Maria, Bryan, Cobi and Emily Baker, as well as his sisters Roseann Luth, Carol Soffer and Ronette Ward, among other extended family.
Services will be held at St Therese of Carmel Catholic Church on September 18 at 10:30 AM.
In lieu of flowers please consider making an extra donation to your favorite charitable cause.