This story appeared in the March 2016 issue of Naples Illustrated.
Photography by Vanessa Rogers
Ever since founding Gulfshore Playhouse in 2004, Kristen Coury has dreamed of creating “a Tony Award-winning regional theater” in Naples but has lacked a venue to match her ambitions. The not-for-profit theater in Naples stages its plays in the Norris Community Center, a city building that also hosts many other cultural activities. When Coury recently found the perfect spot for a new theater, as part of the Naples Square downtown development, she turned for help to long-time patrons of the arts Patty and Jay Baker. As Gulfshore Playhouse season donors, the Bakers have been giving at the $100,000 level for several years, and Coury had a feeling she could count on the couple again. She just didn’t know the gift would be $10 million.
As a result of this donation, which was revealed exclusively to Naples Illustrated, Gulfshore Playhouse in a few years will move into a 56,000-square-foot professional theater, where it will put on a mix of new material and classics, creating original shows that its director hopes will make the jump to Broadway. The new facility will contain a 400-seat main auditorium—double the capacity of the Norris Center—and a 175-seat studio for more intimate performances and children’s theater. Plans call for rehearsal spaces, an educational wing with classrooms, an art gallery, and a café. The total cost of construction will be $40 million, but the Bakers’ gift is more than enough to get started. “Thanks to the Bakers,” says Coury, “we are going to have one of the best regional theaters in the country.”
Such gifts are wholly in character for the Bakers. For the past two decades, their philanthropy has fueled major development projects and enriched the cultural fabric of Naples. Even if you don’t know them, you know their handiwork—the institutions and attractions that bear their name: The Baker Museum, Baker Theater, Baker Tower, Baker Field. “I always say we like to lay eggs where we nest, and we definitely nest here,” Patty says.
Though they have called Naples home for the better part of two decades, Patty was born in the small town of Sykesville, Maryland. After high school she studied nursing, but after a year, “I flunked out—and saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” she quips. She became a flight attendant for United Airlines and later enrolled at Hunter College in New York, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1982 with a degree in art history and theater. His wife’s twin passions, Jay says, have been a theme in their lives ever since.
As a self-made businessman, Jay spent several decades building his career and fortune, which have enabled him and his wife to give so generously today. He grew up in Flushing, Queens, where his mother owned a millinery store, and at age 81 he still retains the New York accent of his youth. As a boy, he helped in the store—unwittingly preparing for a career in retail. During his college years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, his future was anything but certain.
“My parents wanted me to have a profession. I’m Jewish, and they said, ‘You have to have a profession,’” he recalls. “I don’t think I was smart enough to be a doctor, and I hated blood. And I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So we all decided I’m gonna be an accountant. I took a few semesters of accounting and I did well, but I didn’t enjoy it. So I came home my sophomore year and said, ‘I’m enjoying school very much, and I thank you for everything. But I don’t want to be an accountant.’ My father says, ‘What do you want to be?’ I said, ‘I want to be a businessman.’ He said, ‘My God, you’re going to the Wharton School and you’re not going to have a profession!’ I think he thought I was finished for life.”
After graduating and completing a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he found himself casting about for what to do next. Aptitude tests pointed him toward retail, so he enrolled in the Macy’s training program, spending the next nine years working his way up to store management, followed by executive positions at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. When his mentor, the president of Saks, became head of retail for British American Tobacco, which owned Saks and Kohl’s, among other retailers, Jay followed him into the corporate office and later met Patty in 1985.
Their lives were about to change on a grand scale. Jay, along with other senior managers, purchased Kohl’s, then a low-rent department-store chain with only 39 retail outlets, from British American Tobacco. Jay became the company’s president and married Patty three years later, in 1989. By the time he retired in 2000, he had grown Kohl’s to 300 stores and $3.8 billion in annual revenue.
Having retired to Naples, the couple began looking for new ways to invest their abundant time and energy. Says Jay, “People said, ‘Well, you’ll start another company.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘How the hell do you build another Kohl’s?’ And maybe I didn’t want to work eight days a week.”
They reflected on their good fortune, the values their families had instilled in them. “Even though our parents didn’t have very much money, they would give back small sums of money, they would devote their time,” Jay says. “We said, ‘We should do something to give back.’ And that’s how it all started.”
Soon after moving to Naples in the mid-1990s, the Bakers made their first significant donation in the community. Patty went to lunch with a woman representing The von Liebig Art Center, which provides studio space and classes for artists. “I told her that we would give $25,000, and she was very excited, and then I said, ‘. . . a year for five years,’ and she started crying.”
The couple’s philanthropy increased dramatically from there. In 2007, at a gala for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Naples Philharmonic, the Bakers cornered Myra Daniels, founder of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, and told her they wanted to give $10 million to endow the center’s fine-art museum in Pelican Bay. They had already donated $1 million to finance one of the 30,000-square-foot museum’s 15 galleries, which opened in 2000. Jay had joined the Phil’s board of directors the following year. Their newest gift enabled the museum, renamed in the Bakers’ honor, to sustain itself in perpetuity.
Today the Bakers’ donation still makes up more than 50 percent of the museum’s endowment. Kathleen van Bergen, the CEO and president of Artis–Naples, says the Bakers “are essential to our continued success. They are instrumental not only in supporting the arts but in attending, in production, in seeking out visual and performing artists they enjoy.”
As an example, she points to the Yves Saint Laurent and Halston exhibit on display at the Baker Museum through March 6. The pieces in the show were drawn from the permanent collection of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum in New York. The Bakers, who are major donors to FIT, connected van Bergen with people at the museum to have the exhibit brought to Naples. “I think they’re a perfect example of people who have established what they stand for and what they believe in, and then support it voraciously,” adds van Bergen.
In 2012, the Bakers received the Naples International Film Festival’s Voice of the Arts Award for their contributions to the local arts scene. Patty served on the Naples Players’ board for years, chairing two fundraisers that together raised more than $3.5 million. In addition, the Bakers have donated nearly $2?million to the community theater.
Patty is not only an enthusiast of the arts but an active participant. An investor and producer of Broadway shows, she was excited last December to have six shows running at the same time: Hamilton, Something Rotten, and Matilda, which she invested in, as well as Beautiful, China Doll, and Fiddler on the Roof, which she helped to produce. One of the first shows she produced was the musical Memphis, for which she won a Tony in 2010.
Yet the Bakers are not content to confine their philanthropic outreach to the arts. Dr. Allen Weiss, the president and CEO of Naples Community Hospital, has known the couple for years, and his institution has benefited from their generosity. A decade ago, Patty and Jay gave $5 million for the construction of a six-story tower on the hospital’s north campus. The new building added nearly 200 patient beds to the campus, an increase of nearly 400 percent.
Most recently, in February, the Bakers came up big again for the hospital, pledging $15 million to renovate its downtown operating rooms and expand its palliative care service. As of now, the palliative care team treats 15 to 20 patients a day, but soon, Weiss says, they will be able to care for two to three times as many. The downtown hospital has been renamed NCH Baker Hospital.
Best of all, the Bakers’ gift will go a long way toward opening a new outpatient palliative care center, relieving pressure on the Baker Tower’s in-patient service. Palliative care is not only about end-of-life treatment but also about managing chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure.
“If you can measure total amount of suffering, these people with long-term debilitating diseases suffer more than those getting run over by the proverbial bus,” Weiss says.
Palliative care is unpopular, he adds, even an “orphan,” because it does not lend itself to the kinds of heroic, life-saving efforts that are the pride of Western medicine. “And to take that up as a mission? The Bakers want to help people,” he says. “They have a real passion for folks who are suffering and need relief.”
In total, the Bakers have donated about $23 million to NCH over the years, making them the hospital’s largest donors. The couple has given more to NCH, in fact, than to any other organization other than Wharton, Jay’s alma mater. Their impact on health care in Southwest Florida, according to Weiss, has been “transformational.”
“It’s kind of heady when you’re driving down and you see a sign that says Baker Museum, or you see the Baker Tower at the north campus of the community hospital,” Patty says. “It’s a kind of little flicker in the heart.”
But she emphasizes that putting their names on buildings is not about self-aggrandizement. Instead, she says, they are hoping to prick the consciences of other wealthy residents of Southwest Florida, inspiring them to give.
According to Weiss, the tactic works. “Having the endorsement of folks like the Bakers—who are very discerning, and very smart, and very savvy—it’s just great for other people to see,” Weiss says. During the fiscal year that ended September 30, NCH raised a record-breaking $34 million.
Including the sizable new gifts to NCH and Gulfshore Playhouse, the total amount the Bakers have donated to a variety of organizations in Naples is on the order of $55 million. “One of the advantages of a place like Naples,” Jay says, “is that it’s far easier in a smaller community to make a bigger impact.”
Among a myriad of other local philanthropic endeavors, the Bakers support the Humane Society Naples, PAWS Assistance Dogs, and Collier County Honor Flight, a nonprofit that takes local veterans to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Last November, the Bakers took part in one such flight.
But their generosity is not limited to Naples. In recent years they have given eight-figure sums to Hunter College, whose board of trustees Patty sits on; to Mount Sinai; and to Wharton, endowing the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Patty says. “It feels good to give back. I like to say that we’re living our legacy, because instead of waiting until we’re dead and have no idea where the money is going, this way we get to see where it’s going and get to see the results. And it’s just amazing to see the difference it can make in a community and in individuals’ lives. I think that’s what we were born for.”