The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its 18-hour search Friday for New York philanthropist George F. Baker III ’61, a member of a family of major Harvard donors, whose private plane had gone missing off the coast of Nantucket the previous afternoon.
A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School (HBS) who was actively involved as an alumnus at both institutions, Baker, 66, was the great-grandson of George F. Baker, a former president of the First National Bank of New York whose $5 million donation in 1924 was crucial to the construction of the HBS campus.
News of Baker’s disappearance came as a shock to members of the HBS community. Baker had been a friend of the past two deans as well as current acting dean Jay O. Light and served on several committees, according to HBS spokesman James E. Aisner ’68.
“There’s a very personal sense of loss here because he was really involved at the school,” Aisner said. “He was someone that people really knew and respected.”
Donella M. Rapier—who is the University’s vice president for alumni affairs and development, but was formerly an associate dean for external relations at HBS—said that Baker had made it clear, particularly through his active participation at reunions for the College and the Business School, that “he had quite an affection for Harvard.”
“This was a real tragedy,” she added, “and, given the long history of the family and his involvement at Harvard, his loss will be felt by a lot of people.”
Baker was flying alone on his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron BE 55 to meet his wife at their Nantucket home on Thursday when his plane disappeared off the radar and lost contact with the local airport’s radio control tower at 4:45 p.m., dropping below 200 feet about two and a half miles from the airport.
The plane, which had taken off from the airport in Teterboro, N.J. earlier that afternoon, had been cleared to land at Nantucket Memorial Airport and did not transmit a distress signal. The weather in the Nantucket area at the time was cloudy with moderate wind and visibility of 10 miles, according to www.weather.com.
Nantucket police initially reported seeing a red light in the water near the suspected crash site and later found a first-aid kit and a bottle of aviation lubricant near Nobadeer Beach. The Coast Guard dispatched a team consisting of a Falcon jet, a Jayhawk helicopter, and three boats to search for Baker’s plane, according to a statement from the Coast Guard released Friday.
The search continued through the night, but, finding no immediate signs of Baker or his plane, the Coast Guard called off its rescue efforts at 1:13 p.m. Friday.
The Baker family name is well known across the University, particularly at HBS, where the library is named after Baker’s great-grandfather. Martin S. Feldstein ’61 and former HBS dean Kim B. Clark ’74 are among those who have held Baker professorships, also named for the first George Baker.
When Baker graduated from HBS in 1964, he continued his family’s involvement in finance and charitable activities, making sure not to become entrenched solely in the corporate world.
“I knew I didn’t want to work in an enormous institution,” he recalled in an interview with the HBS Bulletin in 1989.
Baker was a general partner at the New York-based investment firm Baker Nye Greenblatt and a senior trustee for the George F. Baker Trust, a $15 million fund established through the will of his grandfather that gives charitable gifts to medical and educational organizations.
In addition to making significant donations to Harvard, Baker also contributed to Columbia University, Dartmouth University, and Georgetown University.
In the 1960s, Baker helped found the Quebec Labrador Mission, which took American teenagers to teach at Canadian fishing villages, Aisner said. Baker was also involved with several other institutions, including the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the New York Zoological Society, and the Woods Hole Sea Education Association on Cape Cod.
A trustee of St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., Baker also served on the visiting committee of the Kennedy School of Government, according to the HBS Bulletin.
The area off the coast of Massachusetts has seen three other small-plane crashes this year. In 1999, a private plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr. went down 30 miles from where Baker’s plane disappeared, according to the New York Times.
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.
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