From Broadway’s Hamilton to Naples’ Fine Art, Philanthropists Patty and Jay Baker Love Living Their Legacy
By John D. Adams
Lifelong Naples residents Jay and Patty Baker seem to make a positive difference wherever they go. Jay, a retired president of Kohl’s department stores and Patty, a longtime support of the arts in a variety of remarkable ways, are arguably busier now in their retirement than they were while working. The philanthropist couple have impacted lives across the U.S. thanks to their unprecedented level of giving. According to “The Chronicle of Philanthropy” the couple have, to date, given upward of $65 million dollars to museums, health centers, business schools, technology centers and theatre programs. And they show no signs of stopping anytime soon.
What compels some people to share their good fortune with others? Interestingly, both Jay and Patty were brought up in families where giving back to the community was encouraged. “Even though our families were what you would consider lower middle class, both of us had parents who instilled in us the importance of giving back to the community,” explained Jay. “We were fortunate to have great success in business. When I retired I remember laughing because I still had a lot of energy but didn’t necessarily want to continue working every day or open another Kohl’s. So we came to the conclusion that since we had been so blessed and lucky we really wanted to spend our time giving back and we wanted to do it at a time when we could still see where that was going.”
Patty had been particularly drawn to the Arts from a very young age. “I’m creative but I never had a particular talent for creating art myself. I remember in 10th grade we were studying for a world history exam and I just couldn’t keep anything in mind. I was stuck at home during a blizzard and started reading more about history and I really got into it and ended up getting an ‘A’ on the exam. That started my interest in history. And when I started studying art in college, I found the history dovetailed so beautifully. I studied the renaissance and Italian artists and then I started studying Japanese art and New York artists, then impressionists, and it just continued to grow from there.”
“My interest in art really began through Patty,” added Jay. “She studied Art History and theatre and had been involved for many years as a docent in Milwaukee. With Patty, I got a much greater appreciation for art and artists. When we travel, she points out things to me. Now, I chair the Baker Museum. It’s amazing how things work out.”
Jay elaborated further. “When we arrived in Naples, we got involved with the Naples Players. And the person to see was Myra Daniels. She mentioned that she wanted to build a museum and asked if we had an interest in it. We gave a gallery, which is still there. It has a stunning Chihuly ceiling. Later they wanted to raise substantial money to endow the museum. We both looked at it and decided this was something we wanted to become more involved with, so that’s how the name changed to the Baker Museum.”
In New York, the couple have a long history of lending financial backing to a variety of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. And this past year has seen a surprising boon. “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical biography about the first U.S. treasury secretary, won 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Bakers were thrilled to have been investors in the show. “It’s really been insane,” enthused Patty. “We knew it was good and revolutionary. The casting and the book were all very different for the theater. It was so high energy and just such great work that we wanted to be involved.”
Jay wasn’t so sure. At first. “I hadn’t seen it while it was playing at The Public Theatre [where Patty holds a seat on the Board], but it had won all of the off-Broadway awards. But I’m thinking to myself, hip-hop and Alexander Hamilton? How can this be that good? Well it wasn’t good. It was incredibly good! You can see it a hundred times, it’s such an incredible show. I think it surprised everybody that it has become such a phenomenon. It has changed theatre and the people who see it.”
Passion, Not Profit
For the Bakers, their need to give back lies not in a profit margin, but a passion to get involved with their communities. And while many fortunate people leave endowments and financial gifts through their wills, the Bakers followed a different path. “We call it living our legacy,” said Patty. “Because we have a say in what happens with the money, we get to see the lives it affects, we get to interact with the students who are recipients of our scholarships, and in the arts we get to see what it is doing, what changes it is making. We encourage everybody else to give what they can while they’re alive so that they can enjoy it and see what happens. It’s really the most rewarding time in our lives.”
Thanks to their Broadway and celebrity connections, Jay and Patty Baker have been longtime supporters of Naples’ Celebrity Martini Glass Auction. This year they asked their “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda to sign a beautiful new glass, which he was happy to do.
“We have been involved from the beginning. We have brought glasses in every year and we own a lot of glasses!” laughed the couple.
CMGA founder and President Brenda Melton elaborated further. The CMGA’s theme for 2017 is ‘Love Is…’ I came up with the theme after meeting Corporal Tim Donley and his wife Kelly at last year’s CMGA. Corporal Donley is a veteran and double amputee. He was injured in Afghanistan. He met his wife Kelly a few years ago when she came to visit her brother [Tim’s roommate] at Walter Reed Hospital. The two became friends, then fell in love. Tim is a singer and has sung with Walter Rogers, Sheryl Crow and many others. He will be our Guest Speaker at the March 26th 2017 CMGA. For tickets, go to www.naplescmga.org.
“I love Broadway, and while watching the Tony’s the night of the Orlando shootings, I heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s speech as he was tearing up. He said: ‘Love is, love is, love is, Love’. I was so moved I knew what the 2017 CMGA theme had to be.”