Things change and evolve.
For 40 years, Newton County has had one probate judge. Sure, his office moved a few yards from the Newton County Historic Courthouse to the Judicial Center but the probate and magistrate judge’s robes have been filled by Henry Baker.
That will all change in January. After four decades, Baker has decided to put down the gavel and hang up his robe.
The decision, Baker says, was an easy one. But not because a grateful community doesn’t still cherish the judge who settles will disputes, issues marriage licenses, and takes their money for traffic tickets. Well, maybe a little on that last one.
No the Newton County residents’ affection for the man they elected in 1977 and every four years since hasn’t moved on – time has.
Baker, himself, will say retiring was an easy decision.
“I’m 72-years-old,” Baker said. “I came in here one time and one of the attorneys who didn’t know me said, ‘I hear they’ve got an elderly judge here in Newton County.’ I said, ‘Yeah, they have.”
When Baker tells that story, it isn’t one of sadness or distaste for the unsuspecting attorney. It was just a way to say he knew it was time. That’s his personality — as his traffic court clerk, Windy Koutras puts it “You never know what is going to come out of his mouth.”
When Baker decided to run for Newton County’s probate judge, time was clearly showing it kept going. It had only been a year since Newton County even had a probate court. Prior to probate, it was Ordinary Court. Prior to Ordinary Court, it was the Inferior Court Sitting for Ordinary Purposes.
However, having to go to Inferior Court didn’t have the same ring to it as going to Superior Court.
“That didn’t sound too good,” Baker said.
So a change was made and Newton County had a probate court in 1975 and a new Probate Judge in 1976.
Even Baker himself changed in the mid-70s. Prior to being elected, Baker wasn’t on the track to making judgements in court. He had been a successful teacher in the Newton County School System.
Starting out as a teacher at Ficquett Elementary, he then taught history at Cousins and then at Sharp Middle School. That change was a practical one for Baker, who could walk to work from his home on Campbell Street.
While working at Sharp Baker also was on the Board of the Recreation Commission and volunteered at polling places throughout the county. That led him to be a familiar face with Newton County residents, who turned out to vote in 76.
According to an article reporting the election results then in The Covington News, “Henry Baker won the runoff for Judge of Probate Court, defeating Neil J. Ginn by better than 500 votes.”
Baker picked up 3,347 votes (good for 54 percent), defeating Ginn in 212 precincts.
“I guess they knew the name,” Baker said recalling the election.
Also, Baker’s brother delivered gas to local stores, and campaigned for the history teacher. “He helped me a lot,” Baker said.
After that initial campaign, not much changed for Baker on the election front. He ran unopposed for Probate Judge every term, except once, in 1996. Just three years later he would be named Georgia’s judge of the year — his proudest moment.
By then, Baker was well on his way to being Newton County’s longest tenured judge. That coming in a position where long-term means decades not years. Prior to Baker, Donald Stevens was Probate and Ordinary Judge for 26 years. Abe Lloyd was the Ordinary Judge before him, for 31 years.
“It’s not a walk-away job,” Baker said.
If you are endearing the public and kind to your staff, the seat seems to be yours, if Newton County’s last three Probate/Ordinary judges are any indication. Support staff of Stevens and Lloyd couldn’t be found but Baker’s staff confirmed the judge’s kindness, patience and giving spirit.
“He’s a very compassionate man, said Koutras, who worked as Baker’s Traffic Court Clerk for 15 years. “He’s always willing to listen. He always says there is three sides to every story.”
That is just one of the motto’s Baker stood fast on. Another is that if you’re not having fun at a job, you shouldn’t do it anymore. That came through for Baker. As things changed, so did his enjoyment of the job he has done for so long.
“It got to be more work than it was fun,” Baker said.
One of the reasons, he said, was changes in technology. Everything now is recorded on cell phones, and their video cameras. That is not any more true than when Baker performs a marriage.
When he first started — along with the judge getting paid for stating the nuptials — things were different some soon-to-be newlyweds brought in actual cameras.
“Someone would have a Browning Instamatic, now they all have phones in their pockets that can take still pictures or moving pictures,” Baker said. “One time someone came in and forgot their camera, I said ‘Use my phone.’ And they transferred the photograph to their email address.”
“He is a rare breed these days,” Koutras said. “To have so much compassion and be willing to help and he doesn’t expect anything in return other than you to be you and do the right thing.”
The marriages themselves have changed. Baker has performed thousands of marriages, but just recently he embarked on something new. As predicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, Baker started performing same-sex couple marriages. Since then he has done 40 marriages of Newton County, Walton and Rockdale county same-sex couples.
He didn’t make issue of the change, but stuck to his charge and upheld the duties of probate judge.
Through it all he hasn’t made issue of the change, but before beginning his most recent — and last— term as judge, Baker opted to make the biggest yet. He began informing people he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2016.
The decision also coincided with his diagnosis of Parkinson’s. He discovered he had the disorder of the nervous system about four years ago and has continued working.
“For some folks it works fast and on some slow,” Baker said. For him it has come on slow, especially with his prescribed medication. “The drugs stopped it all except the shaking.”
He never used Parkinson’s as an excuse, and for those who haven’t paid attention to the shaking of his hands, wouldn’t know he has it. Just months from retirement, he is still attending traffic court regularly and performing a growing number of marriages.
His duties as probate and magistrate judge, along with being a member of several law organizations, the Pilot Club and Kiwanis Club of Covington, have kept Baker busy. Now comes one final change, a chance to slow down.
As to what Baker will do with his long-deserved retirement, he doesn’t know yet.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with six Saturdays in the week now,” Baker said.