George Baker of Boca Grande is back on the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority Board after a previous stint as chairman of the GIBA Finance Committee was cut short.
In his previous term, the 83-year-old Baker was struck down by a heart attack on an island tennis court and survived the 5 percent survival rate for cardiac arrest arrivals in the emergency room.
It wasn't Baker's first close shave. He grew up in the inner city of Chicago and was an indifferent student given to cut class to watch the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He was there when Chicago last made it to the World Series in 1945 against Detroit.
When his brother was killed in World War II, Baker's mother insisted he use his G.I. insurance to get a college education. Tiny Coe College accepted him despite dismal high school transcripts, he said.
"I got in with the lowest recorded grade on the English entrance exam they had ever had," Baker said.
His world changed a lot at little Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He earned an academic scholarship and was elected president of his fraternity.
George Baker at a glance
Occupation: retired financier
Residence: Boca Grande
Family: married with son and daughter
Education: Coe College
Discovered Boca Grande: When I first started coming here in the '70s to see my friends, brothers Joe and Bob Hayden of Cincinnati, there were just a couple dozen cars a day coming over the bridge. Now it's hundreds of cars.
"It was a wonderful turning point in my life," he said.
Rather than settling for a shoe factory job, as he'd once expected, upon graduation he was recruited from Coe College by Continental Bank in Chicago where he rose to become the chief lending officer and traveled the world over a 35-year career.
Here's why Baker chose to serve the GIBA Board at age 83 and how the island can expect the $40 million bridge-building project to play out.
QUESTION: You have a beautiful home in Boca Bay with wonderful views of the water and wildlife. Why trade that in for the headaches that come with serving on the GIBA Board during the bridge-building project?
ANSWER: (Laughs) I'd been on it once before. I just felt there were some soft spots there. Over the years, the board has been a pretty casual operation. I was on the boards of Field Museum and Children's Memorial in Chicago and a number of corporate boards. So I have a little bit of experience with board responsibilities.
Q: Why was your first term with the GIBA Board a troubled one?
A: Jim (Cooper, GIBA executive director) and I clashed and had a little falling out over him calling a Finance Committee meeting without clearing it with me. I told him if he ever did it again, I would cancel it. The next day I got fired as finance chairman (laughs). Then I had the unfortunate experience of having a heart attack while playing tennis in 2008.
Q: So how is your working relationship with Jim Cooper today?
A: It's comfortable with a little bit of a distance.
Q: How has your recovery from the heart attack gone?
A: I've recovered. I was out for quite awhile. Fortunately we had a defibrillator down at the Pass Club. They worked me with that because I was out cold. No pulse. No breathing. They hit me with the defib and got me back. The doctors at Sarasota Memorial put in some stents, and later a defibrillator, in my chest. It was a year I was recovering.
Q: What surprised you most about the heart attack?
A: Hell, I didn't even realize how significant cardiac arrest was until at the hospital they were telling me, if they get you to the hospital and you're alive, you have a 5 percent chance of making it. There's a heavy mortality on cardiac arrest.
Q: Why take on this stress with the GIBA Board when perhaps it's not in your best interests?
A: Somebody had to do it. The management of the affairs of the bridge requires an effective board. I've gotten other people involved such as Lee Major and Peter Strong, so I feel much better about it. Peter has a good engineering background, which we've never had on the board.
Q: How does this board compare with the one from four years ago?
A: I think it's a much more effective board at this point, much more involved. (GIBA Chairman) David Hayes certainly seems to be taking an active role as opposed to the passive role the previous board chairman had taken relative to the bridge and Jim. It seems to be working pretty well. There's a much more rational relationship between Jim Cooper and the board at this point.
Q: Do you find fault with previous GIBA Boards for not putting money away to replace the aging bridges?
A: There was never any provision for rehabbing or rebuilding the bridges. No reserves were allocated. (The bridge project) kind of happened very fast and should have been anticipated over a period of years.
Q: Is that another reason why you ran?
A: I couldn't get any volunteers so I had to do it myself. I was not anxious to do it at my age with a bad heart. I'm happy as a clam in my life. Life is good. But somebody had to do it. I felt I could make a contribution with my financial background. I've had a lot of experience that has application with what we're doing here with the bridges because obviously, what I was doing was dealing with money all the time.
Q: The GIBA Board is expecting the State Infrastructure Bank to come through with funding that will enable it to avoid any more toll increases. Is that what you expect?
A: No, I don't. It would be nice if we got that state money but I'm not counting on it. Everybody's counting on it but me. I'm a pessimist. I always look at the downside. It's old banking tradition. You don't want the downside to jump up and snap you in the ass. You want to have seen it coming. If the state money comes, terrific, I'll buy everybody a drink. But if it doesn't, I won't be surprised and we'll go on from there, raise the tolls a little bit and life will go on.
Q: Aren't you concerned the tolls could get a little too pricy and hurt business on island?
A: I don't think so. Many of the employees on the island have their fees reimbursed. At the end of the day, everybody raises their price a little bit and the islanders pay for the bridge anyhow. It's not going to change anybody's habits. At this point there is no likelihood the tolls will be raised dramatically.
Q: You're pretty happy with how your life has worked out, aren't you?
A: My wife and I came down and found this lot back when Boca Bay was just starting. At the beginning there were about half a dozen houses on this side so I was able to buy this lot and the one next door and we built this house. It was one of the best decisions of my life. How could I be happier?