When Judge Deborah Cook first joined the 9th District Court of Appeals in the early ‘90s, she was in the minority — it was her first time on the bench, she was only in her 30s and she was a woman.
Cook found a mentor and friend in Judge William Baird, who taught her how to review appeals and write opinions.
“I was just very fortunate to find a mentor whose approach to the law was so solid and so appropriate,” said Cook, who left the 9th District to join the Ohio Supreme Court and now serves on the U.S. District Court of Appeals. “He did the job right. The whole legal community admired Judge Baird.”
Cook is among numerous judges and attorneys in the Summit County area who served with and learned from Baird, 84, who died Feb. 4. Baird will be recognized for his lifetime of public and community service during a memorial service at 1 p.m. Friday.
Baird retired from the Akron-based 9th District in May 2004 after 32 years of public service. He was barred by age restrictions from seeking re-election to the appellate court. He was a judge for 27 years, serving as a Summit County Common Pleas judge from 1977 until being appointed to the appellate seat in 1982 and winning election to three consecutive six-year terms.
Baird also worked four years as an assistant county prosecutor and 11 years as law director for Akron.
A few days before Baird’s death, Medina County Common Pleas Judge Joyce Kimbler lauded him for his mentoring in a column in the Medina Post. Kimbler noted that she and two other female law clerks for Baird — Summit County Judges Alison McCarty and Tammy O’Brien — became common pleas judges.
Kimbler said Baird encouraged her in her legal pursuits, unlike a previous professor who suggested she might be better suited as a waitress.
“My mentor gave me the courage to believe that the girl with no legal aptitude could become the woman whose opinions a jurist would trust,” Kimbler wrote.
Summit County Councilman Clair Dickinson, who served for six years on the 9th District bench with Baird, also learned a lot from Baird. He said Baird was a hard worker and always understood the issues.
“He had a fantastic memory,” Dickinson said. “After oral arguments when we would conference, he would remember a case from years before the court had decided on a previous issue. Someone would head to the library and find that case.”
Dickinson said Baird reached the conclusion on cases that he thought the law required, regardless of whether this decision caused discomfort. He pointed, as an example, to Baird’s opinion for the majority in 2007 that socialite Cynthia George should be released from prison and the murder charge dismissed against her. He and Judge Beth Whitmore found George was convicted of conspiring to kill her former lover on insufficient evidence.
“He was a good man and an outstanding judge,” Dickinson said.
Baird also was known for being thoughtful. Nancy Reeves, now an assistant dean for the University of Akron law school, recalled how Baird brought a baby alpaca into the 9th District the day after Dickinson lost his seat on the court. Baird and his wife, Patricia, had begun raising alpacas on their farm in Copley.
“Your dad knew the day would be hard for everyone,” Reeves said in an email to Sally Baird, Baird’s daughter, after Baird’s death. “Your dad figured an alpaca would be just the thing to soften the blow.”
Baird’s foray into farming began with a goat and a goose, whom Rebecca “Becky” Baird, his other daughter, recalls didn’t get along.
“The goose and the goat would fight,” Baird said. “It was comical to go out into the driveway and they would start acting up. The goat would get mad at the goose.”
The Bairds bought their first alpacas in the late ‘90s and had them for more than 20 years, at one point amassing close to 30.
Many people who knew Baird recall one thing he wasn’t good at — choosing his attire. Cook said she would giggle when Baird came into work wearing a green tie and a purple shirt. Dickinson said he often wondered where Baird got his unusual shirts and sports coats.
Rebecca Baird laughed when asked about this. She said her father “couldn’t put an outfit together to save his life.”
“Mom would be in the kitchen making breakfast and he would come down dressed with his briefcase and she would say, ‘Oh, Bill, you can’t go to work in that,’ ” Rebecca recalled. “She would have him change his tie, change his jacket. It wasn’t of importance to him.”
Baird was the recipient of the Sir Thomas More Award in 2006, an annual honor given by the Akron Bar Association to an attorney who demonstrates “personal integrity, community service and professional excellence.”
Baird’s extensive community service included mission trips for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to Haiti, where he helped with building a school and a church. He also was involved for many years with the Copley-Fairlawn Kiwanis, assisting with the Christmas food drive, a food cooperative program and the Copley Bandstand Committee’s concerts in Copley Circle.
“Dad was a big giver,” Rebecca Baird said, getting choked up. “He liked to give back to people.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.