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Elinor Shutts Baker, 1919-2012: Local culture leader wrote society column

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    Elinor Shutts Baker.

  • Elinor-Shutts-Baker

    Elinor Shutts Baker influenced local culture.

    The Blade
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Elinor Shutts Baker influenced local culture.

The Blade
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Elinor Shutts Baker, the daughter of a prominent newspaper publisher who wrote for The Blade about society, music, and interior design and who helped found the Toledo Opera Guild, died of a stroke Sept. 1 in Noreen McKeen Residence in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was 93.

Formerly of Perrysburg, Mrs. Baker had multiple health problems in recent years, said her son, Bernard R. "Robin" Baker III.

Her husband, Bernard, was president and chairman of the landmark menswear retailer B.R. Baker Co. who became a lawyer and was corporate secretary of The Blade from 1962 to 1990.

"Ellie Baker, who was my godmother, and whom I remember from earliest infancy, was a truly elegant lady," said John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade. "Toledo was fortunate to have her for five decades, and she'll be missed."

The Bakers, often pictured in evening wear, appeared regularly in society and arts coverage in the newspaper. A classically trained lyric soprano, she was a force in the founding of the Toledo Opera Guild, of which she was the first president beginning in 1962, and was on the Toledo Symphony board.

She wrote for The Blade under the pseudonym "Lynn Stevenson." The association began when she contributed in the 1950s to the pages of her good friend Marge McNab Block, who was director of features and women's news at The Blade. Mrs. Baker chronicled society comings and goings in a column called "Worth Mentioning."

"She was very, very bright. I think Marge recognized that," said Tibble Foster, a onetime relative by marriage of Mrs. Baker who became a longtime friend. "Ellie and Bernie were very good friends of Paul [Block, Jr., Blade co-publisher] and Marge. I think Marge, recognizing Ellie's wit and contacts and intelligence and skill with words, asked her whether she was willing to do it."

The column "was eminently readable. People enjoyed it," Mrs. Foster recalled.

When Mrs. Baker's husband was elected a director of the National Association of Retail Clothiers and Furnishers, she was along, and from Los Angeles, "Lynn Stevenson" reported on fiber blends and trends in tuxedos and formal dress.

Mr. Baker also was a longtime member of the board of directors of the former First National Bank of Toledo.

In 1959, Mrs. Baker covered a concert performance of an obscure opera that featured the noted diva Maria Callas.

"None of the famed Callas shenanigans were in evidence," "Lynn Stevenson" wrote. "And as she sang, every part of her was, clearly, built to be part of the job she was doing. Her large features, grotesque in published photographs, on the stage are mobile and expressive; her incredibly long and supple hands move slowly, each motion a telling accent to the text. Her voice bore a brassy edge at first but mellowed and darkened with the moods of the role."

In 1961, under the Lynn Stevenson byline, Mrs. Baker wrote from Washington of fashion improvisation required by the frigid weather at President Kennedy's inauguration: "There were black tights with chic wool dresses, hunting boots with business suits, ski sweaters under minks -- even long winter underwear peeking out from under a Dior cuff."

In the 1970s, she wrote about the Toledo Opera Association chorus, with which she often sang, but she also wrote about how interior designers were transforming local homes; a woman who visited a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas of Bhutan; and lectures in transcendental meditation conducted on Majorca by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

She grew up in newspapers. She was born July 7, 1919, in Miami to Agnes and Frank Shutts. Her father nine years earlier became publisher of the Miami Herald and, eventually, was its owner. A law firm he founded in south Florida, Shutts & Bowen, is still in existence.

"Frank Shutts was obviously quite a powerful figure and a big risk-taker," her son said. "You don't leave Aurora, Ind., in 1910" -- where he was a lawyer -- "and move to Miami, Florida, where they had dirt streets and wooden sidewalks, without being a hell of a gambler."

As publisher of the Herald, "everyone stopped by to pay homage to Frank Shutts," her son said.

In September, 2002, Mrs. Baker reminisced in an article she wrote for the Herald's centennial special issue.

"I loved playing on our front lawn," she wrote. "Sight-seeing boats went by during the winter, and I was proud when I heard the guides shouting into megaphones, 'This is the home of Frank B. Shutts, owner and publisher of the Miami Herald, Florida's most important newspaper.' "

Among the important people who stopped by the house seeking Mr. Shutts' support was Warren G. Harding. Mrs. Baker wrote that President Harding was on the front porch with her parents when she, age 4, came running out of the house, distressed by her broken toy.

"President Harding took the toy and was starting to fix it when an aide knocked on the screen door. 'Mr. President, your train is ready,' he said. To which the President snapped, 'It's not ready until I am, is it?' and went ahead and fixed the toy," Mrs. Baker wrote.

Her father sold the newspaper to John S. and James L. Knight in 1937.

Mrs. Baker was a graduate of the Masters School, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and of Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

In New York City, she studied voice and attended the Juilliard School.

She met her husband back in Miami, where he was stationed as an officer in the Navy during World War II.

Afterward, the couple returned to his hometown. For years, the Baker family lived on East River Road in Perrysburg.

"She was very outgoing, and she made a lot of friends, and they made a great life together in Perrysburg," their son said.

Her father was a civic leader in Miami, so getting involved in community and cultural groups in her new hometown "was a natural thing for her."

Mrs. Baker was a former president of the Junior League of Toledo, a board member of Family Services in Toledo and of what was then called the Toledo Society for the Blind, and was active in the Toledo Council of Social Agencies, the Toledo Hospital Women's Auxiliary, and the Toledo Animal Shelter Auxiliary.

"The opera eclipsed everything else," her son said.

She was active in the late 1950s when the Toledo Opera was founded. And when the first production, Aida, was mounted in 1959 on the stage of the Paramount Theatre, she and her husband were in the chorus, according to the Toledo Opera Web site. By then, she'd already performed as a soloist with the Toledo Symphony in concert at other functions around Toledo. She also sang on occasion with the Chamber Music Society of Lower Second Street, which played Chicago-style traditional jazz at Carranor Hunt & Polo Club in Perrysburg.

Mrs. Baker was a founding member of the Toledo Opera Guild, the arm of the Toledo Opera Association.

"She was very instrumental in working out the bylaws and our mission, which we still use today: to help the opera in any way we can," said Jean Smith, also a past president and still a member. "It started small, but slowly, through all of her connections, and all of her push, she introduced many, many women to our mission. She was the backbone of the guild."

Mrs. Smith said Mrs. Baker was the epitome of charming, and drew people in with her personality and passion for the opera.

"I liked her so much, she was great -- beautiful, bright and everything right," she said. "I remember one night she had a very lovely party and she brought in so many people and they just became opera fans because she introduced them to the beauty of opera.

"She is an honorary trustee still today of the association. Even the young members know her."

Mrs. Baker's aim was to "share the love of music with others," her son said. "That's what she was able to do with the opera association. If she couldn't sing a lead role, she could do what she could to make the enjoyment of opera available to others."

In 1967, she headed the committee planning the Sapphire Ball to benefit the opera and symphony and in 1983 was honorary chairman of the Sapphire Ball.

"She was an extraordinarily competent organizer," Mrs. Foster said. "Her combination of gracious manner and great intelligence really made her a leader no matter what."

She was gracious and elegant, glamorous and spark- ling.

"Nobody who met Ellie ever forgot her," Mrs. Foster said. "She had dark, almost brownie-black hair and she had a wonderful white streak in it. Even little children said, 'Ooh, who is that woman?

"She was a great friend to women and a great supporter of other women," Mrs. Foster said. "There aren't many women in my past I look back on with such admiration. She was special in every way."

The Bakers entertained frequently at their large home.

She "worked hard at it -- and had as good a time at a party as her guests did," her son said.

She was a former board member of Belmont Country Club. She and her husband at various times took up golf and tennis and croquet, but "they weren't very athletically inclined people," their son said.

She and a group of women friends similarly disinclined formed the Ladies Non-Athletic League of Perrysburg and on summer days, members sunbathed on the flat roof of the Baker house.

"They were very modest I'm sure," her son said.

She was a member of the Country Garden Club of Perrysburg. She learned the art of necklace and jewelry making, inspired to create pieces "that won't insult good jewelry or good clothes," she told The Blade in 1977. She described her necklaces as "whimsical, one of a kind, and frankly fake."

She was a former member of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Perrysburg and was chairman of the organ replacement committee.

Mrs. Baker was related by marriage to the Reno family, including former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Both the Shutts and the Reno families grew up in the period before WWII in old South Florida, which boasted stately homes, undeveloped land, and vintage attractions.

The Bakers moved to the Palm Beach, Fla., area in the early 1990s, but for years afterward, spent a month each summer in Perrysburg.

In Florida, the Bakers were members of the Bath & Tennis Club, Beach Club, and Palm Beach Yacht Club. She was a member of the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea and was on the board of its Church Mouse resale shop. She was active in Planned Parenthood.

She and her husband married Oct. 16, 1943. He died June 16, 2004.

After her sister, Marion, died, the Bakers took in and raised their niece and nephew, Eleanor and Frank Hight. They survive.

Their daughter, Lynn Agnes Baker, died in 2009.

Also surviving are her son, Bernard R. "Robin" Baker III; two granddaughters, and two great-granddaughters.

Memorial services will be at 5 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Noreen McKeen Residence, West Palm Beach. Services will be planned later in the Toledo area.

The family suggests tributes to the Toledo Opera Association; Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, Palm Beach, Fla., or Planned Parenthood of South Florida, West Palm Beach.

Staff writer Roberta Redfern contributed to this report.

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