Hall of Famer remains modest about GCU legacy
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by David Kadlubowski
It seemed like only a matter of time before L.E. “Sharky” Baker would add Grand Canyon University Hall of Fame inductee to his long list of accomplishments.
When he got the news that he would be honored at this year’s ceremony, his reaction was typically humble.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe that. I haven’t done anything. I know a lot of people who deserve it more than me,’” said Leona Baker, his wife of 62 years.
“That’s kind of his whole life,” Leona added. “He did what he had to do to make it work and quietly went along his way.”
From an early age, he just got things done.
Sharky was a member of the first baseball team at what was then Grand Canyon College … and was considered a standout in fast-pitch softball, too.
He also played basketball … and eventually became a highly successful high school coach in that sport.
He worked as a janitor in the men’s residence halls … and when Leona first saw him, he was helping freshmen move in.
He even was editor of the campus newspaper … and penned a column called “Off the Hook with Sharky.”
He was everywhere, she recalled.
And everywhere he has gone since high school, he has been known as “Sharky” – all because of something that happened in high school. It was World War II, when gasoline was being rationed, and he needed a haircut. So he skipped lunch to walk down to the barber but didn’t get back in time for his algebra class. He walked in with a late slip, and he picks up the story from there:
“The teacher looked at the slip and he responded in this way: ‘So algebra sharks don’t have to get to class on time?’ After that remark a friend yelled out, ‘Sharky,’ and it stuck.”
After graduating from Grand Canyon in 1956 with his Bachelor of Science in Physical Education and Social Studies, Sharky became a teacher and highly successful basketball coach at Hayden High School in Winkelman, Ariz.
He and Leona moved north in 1968 to Payson (Ariz.) High School, where he would have more basketball coaching success (two state tournament berths, Coach of the Year in the B-Central Division) but eventually felt compelled to guide the school on the administrative side.
Payson had gone 15 years without stability at principal, and Sharky saw another way to contribute: He earned his master’s degree and administrative credentials from Northern Arizona University, then was chosen to be principal in 1976.
“I said, ‘Somebody’s got to nail this down.’ So I got prepared to become the principal,” he said matter-of-factly.
Six years later, he was named superintendent of the Payson Unified School District, a position he held until his retirement in 1990.
But even then he wasn’t finished with the accomplishments that have spanned his life: The school needed a girls basketball coach, and Sharky had all that experience … so he took over for two seasons even though he had retired.
To him, though, it wasn’t a tough decision. He loved what he did.
“With my career, I never had to go to work. It was fun. Kids were fun,” he said.
But Sharky’s accomplishments at GCU were far from over. After retiring, he became president of both the Alumni Association and the Scholarship Foundation. Leona was busy, too – she started the Fuel for Finals initiative and loved baking cookies for students and serving them coffee before their exams.
“I think he wanted to come back and give back, not only to the school, but give back in a way that influenced young people who were going to the school,” said Sharky’s nephew, former GCU administrator Keith Baker.
“For my Uncle Sharky, it was very, very much a commitment of his to show his appreciation for the preparation and the training that he received as a student.”
He started quite a tradition. Three generations of Bakers have walked across the commencement stage to receive their degrees, and Sharky and
Leona regularly join the family at campus events, especially men’s basketball games.
Keith Baker, like the rest of the family, wasn’t surprised that Sharky was selected for the Hall of Fame, adding that his induction is “something that speaks well of the people of that generation that came through the school.”
Just as Sharky speaks well of his alma mater.
“He loves the University,” Leona said. “He said, ‘I am what I am today because of GCU.’”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].