Baker, Howard

A self-made millionaire who attended school through the eighth grade, Howard Baker nonetheless valued higher education. Combining his love for his native Detroit and its people with his desire to give something back, he endowed the Howard Baker Foundation with $5 million to provide financial assistance for needy, minority Detroit-area youth intending to pursue an education at Wayne State University.

Biographical Highlights

Born in Detroit in 1924, Howard Baker devoted his life to the city he loved. Living and working his whole life in Detroit until his death in 1993, his legacy is that of a man deeply engaged with his community and the needs of its inhabitants. Little is known about Baker's early life other than that he attended school only through the eighth grade. He then joined his father in working for a trucking company, a career path in which he flourished. By his mid-twenties, Baker founded his own trucking company "” the Howard Baker Trucking Company "” and contracted with the city of Detroit for lucrative garbage disposal and other jobs. During the successive decades, Baker also owned a car dealership and a restaurant. By the time he sold his trucking business in 1993, Baker was a self-made millionaire several times over "” no small accomplishment for an African American who grew up in the slums with no prescribed training for his vocation.

Historic Roots

Although his business acumen was not the product of a formal education, Howard Baker greatly valued higher learning. He believed that a college education was a way to help African Americans rise out of poverty and achieve middle class status. Seeking to combine his intense love of Detroit and its people with his desire to give something back, Baker helped to establish the Howard Baker Foundation in 1992 (Howard Baker Foundation). Although in remission from the prostate cancer that would eventually take his life, Baker took an active role in shaping the 501(c)(3) charitable organization by dictating that its primary purpose would be to provide financial assistance for needy, minority Detroit-area high school graduates pursuing an education at Wayne State University. At the time of his death in 1993, the foundation was endowed with $5 million.

Over the years, Baker's gift has broadened to assist other nonprofit community associations and charitable activity beyond the scholarship program. The largest current grant is a ten-year, $250,000 donation to Goodfellows, a Detroit-area nonprofit fulfilling the needs and wants of underprivileged children. Baker himself received Christmas packages from the organization as a child. Other groups receiving funds include a soup kitchen run by monks, several twelve-step groups in the U.S. and Canada, and a campground that provides inner-city youth with outdoor experiences. Baker's daughter Michele is the executive director of the Foundation, carrying out her father's work on a daily basis.


Baker was a pioneer in the so-called "everyday philanthropist" style of giving. By living a modest life and consistently saving his extra earnings, Baker was able to accumulate the kind of wealth that allowed him to leave a significant and lasting legacy upon his death. His choice to focus the activities of his foundation on the funding of college scholarships is consistent with many other everyday philanthropists. His life and work prove, however, that philanthropy extends far beyond monetary contributions. By choosing to give back directly to the community in which he thrived, Baker hoped to encourage the spirit of giving in others. As of 2003, over 200 students were studying for their college degrees through scholarships received from the Howard Baker Foundation (Gambka).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Organized in 1992, Baker's nonprofit organization is a textbook example of a foundation endowed by a single person or family where a family member is the executive director and scholarship applications are reviewed and selected by a volunteer foundation board. The scholarship is specifically designed for the student who does not qualify for other types of financial assistance, such as a Pell Grant. Students majoring in nursing or natural science are given preference for scholarships. Nonetheless, any undergraduate minority student who graduated from a Detroit high school and plans to attend Wayne State University on a full-time basis is encouraged to apply. The award covers four-year's worth of tuition, and may be available for an extra year provided the student maintains a 2.75 GPA (Wayne State University). In 2002 alone, the Foundation provided $214,000 in scholarships (Gambka).

Key Related Ideas

Foundation - The IRS classifies foundations either as private foundations, which receive the bulk of their support from a single donor or a few donors, or as public grantmaking charities, which receive a significant portion of their support from the general public.

Important People Related to the Topic

Matel Dawson - From a simple boyhood in the South to years as a forklift operator at Ford Motor Company's Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, Dawson consistently shared generously with those about whom he cared. Having lived for a while in relative luxury, Dawson adopted a frugal lifestyle in middle age and used his years of overtime savings to endow a scholarship at Wayne State University upon his death in 2002. The funds are available to any student and cover full tuition expenses. With only an eighth grade education himself, Dawson believed that leaving a legacy of learning was the best way to benefit people. ("Matel Dawson, Jr..")

Oseola McCarty - After saving her earnings from years as a washerwoman, McCarty endowed a scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1995; she passed away from cancer in 1999. Her $150,000 gift has now helped numerous African American students demonstrating financial need attend the institution on full-tuition scholarships. ("Miss McCarty's Gift.") McCarty's frugal lifestyle and selfless generosity embody the philanthropic spirit. A home page dedicated to her can be found at

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund of Detroit - Commonly known just as Goodfellows, this nonprofit organization is one of Michigan's oldest and most well-managed charities, consistently spending over 90% of their donations directly on Christmas gift baskets, camp and college scholarships, dental work, and free shoes for the poor and disadvantaged in Detroit (Waldmeir). Their mottoes are "Charity without overhead" and "No child without a Christmas;" they manage to carry out both on a regular basis.

Related Web Sites

The Howard Baker Foundation , at offers the most updated details on the work of the foundation, including their funding in the Detroit community and elsewhere, and the requirements for receiving a Howard Baker scholarship. Also included is a brief biography of Baker himself and the contact information for the organization.

Wayne State University , available at , provides potential recipients of the Howard Baker Scholarship with scholarship information. Using the search function, visitors to the site can key in Howard Baker's name and find additional press releases from the university about scholarship-related events.


Gambka, Paul. Personal interview (via phone). 25 July 2003.

Howard Baker Foundation. Community . [cited 23 July 2003]. Available at .

Howard Baker Foundation. Howard Baker . [cited 23 July 2003]. Available at .

Howard Baker Foundation. Scholarship . [cited 23 July 2003]. Available at .

"Matel Dawson Jr.: Forklift Operator Gave $1 Million." Detroit Free Press . 5 November 2002. [cited 24 July 2003]. Available at .

Two New Oseola McCarty Scholars Named." News from the University of Southern Mississippi . 23 September 1999. [cited 24 July 2003]. Available at

Riley, Rochelle. "185 Wayne State Students Benefit from Late Detroiter's Gift." Detroit Free Press . 18 September 2002. [cited 23 July 2003]. Available at .

Waldmeir, Pete. "Goodfellows Make Most of Donations." The Detroit News . 16 December 2001. [cited 25 July 2003]. Available at .

Wayne State University. Howard Baker Foundation General Scholarship . [cited 23 July 2003]. Available at

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Case Western Reserve University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Case Western Reserve University.