Clark Baker has spent his life at the YMCA, first as a member in his childhood – the membership was a gift from a neighbor – and later as one of its top executives.
“I basically went to the Y one day and never came home,” Baker told his wife, Carolyn, who has written a book, “Work, Play, Pray Hard: Life and Leadership Lessons of Visionary CEO Clark Baker,” that follows his 50-year career as a YMCA executive, and shares some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. The title is taken from one of his mottos: “Work hard, play hard, pray hard.”
Through his career, Clark Baker has served as an executive of YMCAs in his hometown of Washington, Indiana, Orlando, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Houston. In 2015, he retired from his position as chief executive officer of the Houston Y, the third largest YMCA in the country, and moved back to Nashville, where he had led the Middle Tennessee YMCA from 1987 to 2001.
“People would always complement Clark and a lot of them would say I loved working with you,” said Carolyn Baker, who was a teacher at Overbrook School and started the parochial school forensics league while her husband was serving in Nashville. “They have Clark stories about how he changed their lives and made them better leaders. I thought I need to compile these stories and help somebody.”
So Carolyn Baker started working on the book in 2013 by asking friends and co-workers for stories about her husband and how he had helped them as a leader. The stories came flooding in.
There were “a number of stories that brought me to tears,” she said, things “I didn’t know that Clark had done for people.”
Her husband of 44 years is “a good, strong leader who still has empathy,” Carolyn Baker said. “Today we need that.”
“The key to empathetic leadership is listening,” Clark Baker said. “I want to listen to people. I want to be responsive. If you can listen, you can make a big difference to people.”
Each chapter of the book uses stories from Clark Baker’s career to illustrate one of the lessons on leadership he has learned along the journey. Among the lessons are:
• Relationships are more important than task.
• Learn to laugh at yourself.
• Pray together, have a belief.
• Pay attention to the little things.
• Spend time on talent.
• It’s all about the mission.
• Deal with your demons before they deal with you.
• Put effort into friend raising.
Carolyn Baker devoted one chapter to her favorite story about her husband. Suzanne Goswick, who now is the vice president of human resources for the Metropolitan Dallas YMCA, had moved from Dallas to Nashville to work for Baker in 1999. Her oldest son stayed behind with relatives to finish his senior year of high school. But just weeks after moving to Nashville, Goswick’s son was faced with a health care crisis.
In the midst of the crisis, Goswick was torn between two cities, struggling to care for her son and settle into her new job, she wrote.
She finally confided in a co-worker about her struggles, who, unknown to her, mentioned it to Baker. When Goswick returned to her office, she found a plane ticket to return home and a note from Baker that said, “Take all the time you need and return when you can.”
The trust and empathy Baker showed for Goswick helped shape her thoughts about leadership, she wrote. “By demonstrating empathy, he taught me to be empathetic. Throughout my time with him, he continually demonstrated what it is to be a true servant leader.”
“I had to put that entire story in there because it touches me so deeply,” Carolyn Baker said.
His career with the Y has been an expression of his Catholic faith, Baker said. “The Y is a great way to have a ministry without being ordained,” he said. “I always say the Y is a Christian organization not an organization of Christians.”
“His faith was an incredibly integral part of being a leader,” Mrs. Baker said. “Every decision he’s ever made he goes to that higher power.”
“I was blessed to have 12 years of Catholic education. That grounds you,” Baker said. “I only got where I was through the grace of God.”
Baker’s service to the community goes beyond his work with the YMCA. Since retiring and returning to Nashville, he has been named to several boards, including several for Catholic or diocesan organizations. Among them are: Saint Thomas Health, of which he is the chairperson; Catholic Charities of Tennessee; Alive Hospice; the Dominican Campus Endowment Board, of which he is the chairperson; the Dominican Sisters Endowment Council; chair of the Retirement Council of the Retired Division of the YMCA International Committee; the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly; Diocesan Foundation; Diocesan Finance Committee; and trustee emeritus at Aquinas College.
He’s also working part-time in the development office of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee.
Baker has been one of the most successful YMCA executives in the country, in part, because of his success in raising funds to build new facilities and to fund new programs.
“He’s raised over $500 million during his career with the Y,” Carolyn Baker said. And on top of that, he’s helped raise money for other charities as well. Among them have been the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville and the Vietnamese Dominican Sisters in Houston.
Fundraising is about building relationships, Baker said. “We’re about friend raising.”
Two of the biggest projects of his career was the building of the Joe C. Davis YMCA Outdoor Center and Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville and the reconstruction of Camp Cullen in Houston, which had been destroyed in a fire. Both projects cost between $25 million and $30 million.
“One of the best things I did in my life was to find that place and build that camp,” Baker said of Camp Widgiwagan. The camp is located on 300 acres on Percy Priest Lake and offers a water program, a horse riding program, cabins for overnight stays, and four miles of shoreline. “It’s a glorious location,” he said.
Of the thousands of children who are campers there every year, 20 percent are on financial assistance, according to Baker, and the YMCA offers specialty camps there for children with disabilities and for teens.
The Bakers have pledged to donate proceeds from the sale of the book to the two camps. “I want to make as much money as I can to help these two camps,” Carolyn Baker said.
“I think the book can help anybody, not just leaders,” she said. “Anybody who wants to be a better person.”
The Bakers will host a book signing at St. Mary’s Bookstore on West End Avenue in Nashville at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 11. They are also available to speak to community groups.
For more information about purchasing the book or to schedule the Bakers as speakers, email