Emeritus professor completes research

Shelley Blundell

Ray Heisey, Emeritus history professor, recently wrote a book about Dr. William Baker.

Credit: Andrew popik

Ray Heisey knows so much about 19th century Ohioan William Baker that he could almost be a part of his family.

Professor and Director Emeritus in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State, Heisey started his research into Baker, the longest serving physician in Stark County, while he was still in high school.

“My parents knew the Baker family for a long time — the daughters were neighbors of ours,” Heisey said.

“When I was in high school the last daughter died, and Dr. Baker’s son invited us into their home and told us we could take whatever we wanted.”

Heisey, who was fascinated with history from an early age, took various journals and “the Baker trunk,” which was filled with old photographs, books and other Baker family artifacts.

Baker, along with being a founding member of the Stark County Medical Society, was also an elected minister and bishop in the Brethren Church of Christ. He published over 70 sermons and was a strong proponent against war and refused to serve in the Civil War.

“I kept the trunk and the other things in my garage and would dig through it every now and again. After I retired, I started to really dig though — I always wanted to do something with it,” Heisey said.

Heisey’s journey through Baker’s life proved to be a long and arduous one. Heisey ran into many problems, the biggest of which being that none of the photos in the trunk were labeled.

But the more he searched, the more he found. Heisey’s research into Baker and his family took him to six different states and more than 20 libraries and archives.

Baker credits a lot of his success to the Internet.

“I couldn’t have done this 10 years ago — I used the Internet for a lot of my research,” Heisey said.

In one instance, Heisey attempted to track down the great-grandchildren of Baker. Searching old newspaper archives, he found an obituary, supposedly for one of Baker’s grandchildren, which mentioned he had surviving stepchildren.

“I didn’t think (the grandson) had stepchildren, but I couldn’t leave it alone.

“Using the Internet, I tracked down one of the remaining stepchildren mentioned in the obituary who confirmed my suspicions — (the grandson) had remarried,” Heisey said.

Heisey acknowledged that serendipity played a big role in his research.

“A big problem I ran into was I kept coming to a dead end in my research.

“But when you come to a dead end, don’t give up — track down your funny feelings because they often pay off,” Heisey said.

Morris Sider, executive director for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society, worked with Heisey with the creation of his book.

“I edit a journal for the society, and I asked (Heisey) to write an article about Dr. Baker for the journal. As he got further and further into it, he realized there was way too much information to be contained in a journal, so we agreed we would publish it as a book,” Sider said.

Heisey published his book Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W.O. Baker, 1827 – 1916 in 2004. The book details Baker’s background, his medical practice, his church leadership, his community involvement, his family and his legacy. Along with the book, Heisey travels across Ohio talking to various historical societies about his research.

While Heisey’s book is finished, he said Baker’s story is far from closed.

“A biography can’t be closed — there’s always something new to find,” Heisey said.

One of Heisey’s Baker-related projects is looking into the possible link between Baker and the underground railroad. Heisey believes Baker may have been involved in helping slaves escape through Ohio and plans to pursue his suspicions in the near future.

“He’s one of those people that when he gets a hold of something, he follows it to all of its ends,” Sider said.

“He’s made people realize just what a significant figure (Baker) really was.”

Contact general assignment reporter Shelley Blundell at [email protected].