Sharky Baker, treasured layman, dies

By Robin Talley* | May 30, 2023

LaVern “Sharky” Baker, devoted Arizona Southern Baptist leader, died March 24, 2023. He was 96.

“Sharky Baker was an innovator for his time,” Steve Bass, former executive director of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, said. “He was so supportive in the early days of Grand Canyon College. He saw a time when Baptists could mold the next generation in Arizona by educating young pastors and schoolteachers. He was always thinking bigger than his own backyard. Sharky’s DNA for missions runs deep in Arizona and beyond.”

Born on June 12, 1926, in Roff, Oklahoma, Baker’s family moved to Chandler, Arizona, in 1938.

“Sharky made his profession of faith at First Baptist Church, Chandler,” Leona Baker, wife of 65 years, recalled. “He was singing in the choir that morning when he went forward.”

Wherever the Baker family lived, they were a part of a local Arizona Southern Baptist Church. Baker was most recently a member of Mountain Ridge Baptist Church in Glendale.

Baker graduated from Grand Canyon College in 1956. His 34-year career in education took him to Hayden and then to Payson, where he retired as the Payson Unified School District superintendent.

Baker used his talents, skills and expertise both in church and in the community. Known as Coach Baker, he enjoyed teaching and coaching but loved the students he mentored and encouraged.

“When I became Sharky’s pastor in Payson in 1976, it took me a while to realize what a treasure I had in him because he was so self-effacing,” Byron Banta, retired pastor and former AZSBC interim executive director, said. “He never called attention to himself. He just went about doing good in Jesus’s name. He seemed to gravitate to ‘the least of these’ and helped them wisely and gently. I know about some of the lives he changed, but certainly not all. ‘Treasure’ is not too strong a word.”

Baker served on the Board of Trustees of Grand Canyon College for 7 years. He also served on many committees for the Valley Rim (Apache) Association.

Baker’s life-long commitment to service is in step with the legacy that his family modeled. Whether it was pastoring, worship leading, serving in committee leadership roles, or serving on the mission field, Baker and his brothers, Randy, Doug, Jess and Charles, and his sister, Lois, modeled what it meant to be devoted followers of Jesus. The authenticity of their faith was affirmed by their church families as Baker, his brothers and his brother-in-law were all ordained as deacons.

Baker is survived by his wife, Leona (Wood) Baker; daughter Vicki Chittenden (Dave); son Rick Baker (Lisa); brothers Randy Baker, Doug Baker; sister, Lois Ruppert; 4 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Walker Whitmore (Whit) Baker and Mary (Mae) Melinda King Baker, and his brothers, Jesse (Jake) Baker and Charles (Charley) Baker.

A celebration of life service was held on April 22, 2023.

The LaVern “Sharky” and Leona Baker Educational Scholarship was created to honor Sharky and Leona’s lifelong dedication to education. Donations to this scholarship fund may be made online at

*Name changed for security

Robin Talley, longtime Arizona Southern Baptist, is a former Last Frontier missionary with the International Mission Board.

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