Obituary: Dr Ron Baker

Dr Baker stood up for what he believed in

Dr Ron Baker did not seek the limelight but stood up for what he believed in, helping to shape many aspects of Ashburton today. He is remembered fondly by many.
Dr Ron Baker did not seek the limelight but stood up for what he believed in, helping to shape many aspects of Ashburton today. He is remembered fondly by many.

Dr Ron Baker cared about his community and throughout his life in Ashburton battled for commonsense and decency.

The man who helped establish Ashburton College and who went head to head with the Government to save Ashburton Hospital, died this month, aged 90.

Born in Greymouth, he later lived in Christchurch and began his working life as a pharmacy apprentice. However, with flying experience under his belt and World War Two service calling, he donned the uniform of the RNZAF and was posted for active service in Europe as a Lancaster navigator for bomber command.

It wasn’t until he returned that he eventually began medical training in Dunedin.

As a newly-trained doctor, Ron and wife, Waveney, arrived in Ashburton in January 1954.

Dr Baker was initially the assistant to Dr Todd in general practice in Allenton. The two-roomed surgery had no receptionist, no nurse and there were paddocks and cattle directly across the road. GPs did many house calls then and Dr Baker did a lot of mileage in his Humber 80.

“There was a map kept next to his bag that had sort of revered status in our house and couldn’t be touched because he relied on that to find people,” son Stephen said.

Three years after his arrival in town he set up in independent medical practice, building up a busy obstetrics practice and attending more than 3000 deliveries.

On top of his GP work, Dr Baker also did anaesthetics. He was permanently on-call for anaesthetics and his own patients, along with his GP consultations in the day and evenings.

Thousands of Ashburtonians called Dr Baker their family doctor, but his influence on the district was far greater than his medical practice.

His sense of family and duty to the community compelled him to take the lead in the amalgamation of Ashburton’s two secondary schools, Hakatere College and Ashburton High School. With four children heading into their secondary education phase he sorted out heated issues going on between the two schools.

He later helped secure the current Walnut Avenue site for the new college, lobbying and gaining the support of then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake. All four of Dr Baker’s children went to Ashburton College and he sat on the school board for 12 years.

He was also elected to the National Secondary School Boards Association, Council of the University of Canterbury and was on the committee on secondary education. His son Bill said he enjoyed the bigger opportunities it gave him to help shape education policy nationwide.

Dr Baker also loved sport and was involved with several codes. In his early life he played rugby, but once he took up medicine became an avid watcher.

He was also a Canterbury cricket representative and loved tennis.

In Ashburton he helped to form the Ashburton Squash Club and was a life member, and he helped to move the netball courts from the Ashburton Domain to Ashburton College and was a patron to Ashburton Netball. At one time he was also the boxing club doctor.

An enthusiastic golfer, he was a life member at Ashburton’s Brandon Golf Course.

Woodcarving was a passion of his and he was able to take a piece of wood and create memorable pieces. He not only designed the Ashburton College Phoenix crest, but he carved a large wooden version of it and gifted it to the school. There is also a lectern carved by him with the crest on it, used for assemblies and award presentations.

When he retired from medicine at 66, Dr Baker rekindled his political work. When the Government indicated the closure of services at Ashburton Hospital, Dr Baker, along with Dr John MacDonald, spearheaded a David and Goliath type fight with the government, which was hell-bent on winding the hospital down.

The fight pitted the men against then-Rakaia MP Jenny Shipley who held the health portfolio.

Dr Baker was part of Age Concern when the hospital supporters had an early win in 1993, but when it flared up again in 1996 he was with Grey Power. He went on to the Grey Power Federation Board and later become their national health spokesman. He was made a life member when he retired from them in 1999.

Post retirement, he wrote a family memoir entitled While You’re Here, Doc and, to his great pride, he was one of the first recipients of a New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996.

He also received the Ashburton Rotary award and was humbled and proud of both acknowledgments, especially as he had not been a member of Rotary.

When Dr Baker and Waveney moved to Christchurch in 2009 to be closer to their family, Grey Power farewelled them in style with a special luncheon.

Ashburton mayor at the time Bede O’Malley spoke at the event and described Dr Baker as “kind, considerate, generous with his time and skilful. Yet he still found the energy to serve the community.”

He was never one to seek the limelight, but would not shy away from it. “He was happy to stand up and express what he believed in, but that was more a means to the end of achieving sensible changes,” Bill said.

Born in Greymouth, Dr Ronald Thomas Ewen Baker MNZM. Service No 4211681 RNZAF Flt Lt, Nav 75 (NZ) Sqn and 158 Sqn, died May 11 at home in Christchurch surrounded by family.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Waveney, children Alison, Bill, Stephen, Margie and eight grandchildren.