Kenneth Bryan Baker passed away on Friday three days before his 91st birthday.
Baker was born February 12, 1927 in Smithfield, the youngest of six children of Levi Cicero (L.C.) Baker and Nettie Johnson Baker. After graduating from Smithfield High School in 1944, at age 17 he volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy, where he served stateside as a hospital corpsman.
Upon his discharge from the Navy he returned to Smithfield and began work at Underwood Funeral Home, which at time was located on Market Street downtown. He then enrolled in Gupton Jones College of Mortuary Science in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating in 1948 and returning to spend the rest of his career as a funeral director and community leader in Smithfield.
In 1949, Mr. Baker met Eva Mae Pittman and they were married in Centenary United Methodist Church on December 17 of that year. They were married for 68 years and were the proud and loving parents of four daughters.
Mr. Baker became a partner in Underwood Funeral Home upon the death of J.D. Creech in 1953. He worked in partnership with Mr. Creech’s widow, Emma, until her retirement. In 1962, the business moved from downtown to its current location on Brightleaf Boulevard. Mr. Baker became the sole proprietor 1972. Eva Baker worked alongside her husband in the business for many years.
Underwood Funeral Home, founded in 1897, is one of the oldest and most respected businesses in Smithfield. In January of 1999 Mr. Baker sold the business to Parrish Funeral Homes but continued to work there until his retirement in 2004.
Mr. Baker was very active in the civic and political life of Smithfield for many years. He was a past president of the Smithfield Kiwanis Club, of which he was a member for more than 50 year, and was a Master Mason. He was a Member for Life of the American Red Cross, having donated more than 170 pints of blood. He served on the board of directors of the Day by Day home of Johnston County from 1978-1984 and on the board of the Smithfield Chamber of Commerce for many years. As a member of the Methodist Men at Centenary United Methodist Church, he was renowned as the organizer and chief cook for the monthly breakfasts enjoyed by the members for many years.
Kenneth served Smithfield as a member of the Public Housing Authority from 1963-65.
He was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1965 and served two four-year terms, ending in 1973 when he decided not to seek another term.
In 1979 he was elected Mayor of Smithfield, serving 10 years until his retirement from politics. During his decade as Mayor, Mr. Baker also served as a director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities from 1986 until 1988 and as president of ElectriCities of North Carolina from 1983-84. He was selected to be among a small group of mayors from across the state who greeted President Ronald Reagan during a visit to Durham in the mid-1980s.
“Mayor Kenneth Baker was a true leader in and for the Town of Smithfield,” stated current Mayor Andy Moore. “Mayor Baker faithfully served the citizens of Smithfield as a civic leader, a political figure and a business owner. His involvement in the community spanned over fifty years of dedicated service; an honorable trait we all should aspire to achieve. As Mayor of the Town of Smithfield, I wish to offer my deepest condolences to the Baker family. The Town is truly grateful for the dedicated service of Mayor Kenneth Baker.”
A memorial service will be conducted at 2:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 13th in the Centenary United Methodist Church. The family will receive friends from 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. just prior to the service in Wesley Hall.
Surviving are his wife of 68 years, Eva Pittman Baker; daughters, Barbara B. Elliott and husband David of Frankford, WV, Margaret Baker Krakover and husband Neal of Hillsboro, WWV, Virginia B. Cooper and husband Jeff of Raleigh and Emily B. Everett and husband Eugene of Cary; four grandchildren, Lauryn Johnson and husband Jimmy, Bryan Ulma, Matthew Krakover and wife Suzanne and Sandra Winfrey and husband Brad.
In lieu of flowers the family asks that memorial contributions be made to Centenary United Methodist Church, 140 West Market Street, Smithfield, NC 27577. Online condolences may be sent to the family at this link.