We are profoundly saddened to learn about the passing of our friend and colleague Thomas Baker and we offer our condolences to his family and friends. Tom was an extraordinary leader both of the Foundation and in the overall Western New York community.
He served as the first president of the Oishei Foundation when it was formally established in 1998 until his retirement in 2006. In that role he was responsible for bringing a higher level of professionalism and structure to the Foundation, including hiring and developing a staff that brought different perspectives and experiences than his own business and accounting background. Under his leadership, the Foundation truly became a catalyst for change for the WNY community. Without realizing it, Tom served as a mentor to his staff as well as to many community members. He had a lasting impact on people and on organizations.
One of his enduring legacies was his belief in collaboration and building consensus. He was open to different ways of thinking and helped to challenge the community to find new ways to work together. He was responsible for bringing nonprofits together with the idea that many of the challenges they faced could be better solved together, as he did with the Arts sector in the late '90s when they faced significant funding challenges.
He used a similar approach in bringing together Buffalo’s local private high schools to form the Buffalo Independent Secondary School Network, a collaborative approach to upgrading technology in schools that is now known as the Education Collaborative of WNY. It was under this structure that Tom also continued John R. Oishei’s dedication to education and formalized the Oishei High School Scholarship program in 1998 that continues today with a goal of increasing diversity in schools. The Foundation has provided more than $13 million over the last two decades to provide a private high school education to support students of color with a financial need and it remains our largest single program.
He made a significant contribution to our community as an early supporter of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus when it was still in the idea stage as the High Street Corridor. He was a strong proponent of the collaborative nature of the Medical Campus and also a strong supporter of the individual institutions that make up the campus.
Tom cared very deeply about his community and was so proud to return to Buffalo to lead the Foundation. He viewed the Foundation as a community asset and encouraged staff and Trustees to find a way to “say yes.” He was well respected as a community leader and was beloved by the Oishei staff and continued to be the Foundation’s greatest cheerleader after he retired. He will be deeply missed and fondly remembered.
Photo above: Former Oishei Foundation President Thomas Baker (l) with current President Robert Gioia (r) courtesy of Get Fokus'd Productions