Following Matt Baker’s death in late December, his parents went to his favorite haunts and posted a copy of the bulletin from his memorial service, along with their phone number.
June and Mike Baker were hoping both to notify those who might not have heard about Baker’s death, and to hear from people who wanted to share some stories about their son. They heard about a person who kindly offered an ear to people in need and was known for quoting Scripture to those who struggled.
Though they knew he was a good, kind man, the couple never imagined they would hear tales like the ones they encountered, because the last few years of their son’s life had been difficult.
Matt Baker struggled with schizophrenia for the last 13 years of his life; in the end, he committed suicide at 31 years old.
His condition made relationships a challenge. But his parents were relieved to see that the mental illness that brought debilitating, relentless havoc to most of his life ultimately left intact the ability to be compassionate.
“That’s been very comforting to both of us,” Mike Baker said. “In a family, you always see the worst. It’s part of being a family.”
June Baker said her son’s diagnosis did not define him as a person. “This is who he was: generous, kind, encouraging,” she said. “But unfortunately, the mental illness was part of him.”
Matthew Baker led a typical life until his freshman year of college, his family said. He was active in his family’s church, had a reputation for being smart and mannerly, and enjoyed music and writing. He was a protective big brother to his sister, Tracey Hamer, and always had a soft spot in his heart for children and older people.
The family took trips all over the country. His parents recall that Baker considered the times spent hiking canyons and camping in mountains among the best in his life.
As a teenager he struggled with typical issues, but his family saw him as a thoughtful young man on his way to big things when he started his freshman year at Elon University.
They were not aware that his mental illness was setting in, and it would be another year or so before they realized it. After failing out of school, their son had a hard time holding a job and began exhibiting strange behavior, his parents said.
Matt Baker had a psychotic break the following spring, which resulted in his first involuntary commitment to Dorothea Dix Hospital. It was there, in 2002, the Bakers were first told that Matt Baker was schizophrenic.
For years, it looked as though their son would be among those who, as one doctor put it, would make it all the way back. He sold insurance as an independent contractor, although he was only able to manage modest hours. His earnings were small, but he took great pride when sold a policy. One client, an older woman, recently cried when talking on the phone to June Baker about what a sweet boy Matt Baker had been.
Joseph Harb, a co-owner of Cappolla’s Pizza and Grill in Knightdale, was deeply affected when he learned of Baker’s death. Harb lost his own mother not long ago, and he once told Matt Baker that he had no family. Baker responded, “I am your family.”
Harb referred to Matt Baker as a brother, June Baker said.
Matt Baker felt most comfortable hanging out at places like Starbucks or Waffle House diners. When he died, he had 27 cents in his pocket and not much more in his bank account, his mother said. Yet he was always offering to buy others a cup of coffee.
In nine phone messages left by her son, June Baker can still hear how caring he was.
One says, “Don’t be stressed about anything, Mom; it’s a great day.” Another goes, “I don’t want you to worry about anything, Mom.”
“Even after he died, he’s still encouraging me,” she said.
Mike Baker admits that having their son live with the couple could take its toll. In addition to the challenge of coping with the nasty nature of their son’s symptoms – though typically sweet, he could become violent and verbally abusive at times – he sometimes lacked a driver’s license, and often needed rides and favors. But his father noted that Matt Baker always said thank you or offered a hug after he’d been given a ride.
“So many kids nowadays are ungrateful,” Mike Baker said tearfully.
In the wake of his death the Bakers, who were always open about their son’s disease, are determined that some good will come from their tragedy. They have started a Matt Baker Memorial Fund at the Wake County Chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness that is specifically for schizophrenia research and education.
Though their son was very private about his condition and deeply fearful about being labeled, they worked with him on accepting the diagnosis without shame.
“We had always been very open with our friends and family. It was just a struggle Matt was facing in his life, and we were on that journey with him,” Mike Baker said.