Like the dinosaurs that once roamed around Glen Rose, Billy Paul Baker Jr. left some big footprints behind.
The longtime park superintendent of Dinosaur Valley State Park passed away peacefully in his home last Thursday after a long illness. He was 61.
Almost 300 people attended his services Monday morning at First Baptist Church in Glen Rose. He was buried that afternoon in the historic cemetery in Oplin southeast of Abilene.
Baker spent more than 37 years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, including respected roles in law enforcement, search and rescue and numerous community organizations. The church was a sea of tan uniforms as dozens of his colleagues from the department attended Baker’s funeral.
During his long career with the department Baker worked in Palo Duro Canyon, Abilene and Mineral Wells. But it was at Dinosaur Valley where he cemented his legacy. He lived and worked with the tracks and delighted in educating children about dinosaurs.
In a video made by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and shown at his funeral, Baker talked with a boy at the park's main track site in Paluxy River.
“Dinosaurs are the greatest thing, they're something, they're big, they're huge they make a lot of noise, and they're not here any more,” he said with a laugh.
“See the footprint, right there? Yah, that's a meat eater. He likes to eat that one. And that's his toe, his claw. Big old claws on that dinosaur. You know what they use them claws for, I guess?”
“To kill,” the boy replied.
“Yeah,” Baker said with a smile.
Those who knew him well said it would be difficult to think about the park or Glen Rose without Baker's physical presence. But his imprint, like the dinosaur tracks themselves, endures.
“For years Billy Paul was the face of Glen Rose tourism across the state of Texas and well respected and liked,” said Billy Huckaby, director of the Glen Rose Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I never attended a state meeting or trade show that someone did not ask about Billy Paul and usually had a funny story to go with it. He was always funny, entertaining and a character that made a positive impression on everyone he encountered.
“Billy Paul took his job very seriously and was protective of the tracks and the dinosaur legacy in Glen Rose,” Huckaby added. “He put his heart and soul into Dinosaur Valley State Park and Glen Rose.”
Baker’s dedication to the citizens of Glen Rose and the State of Texas was second only to his love for his wife and family.
He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Pam Baker, director of the Somervell County Committee on Aging; his son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Credence Baker, of Stephenville; his sister and brother-in-law, Debra and Pete Higgins of Dublin; and his sister-in-law, Paula Baugus, of Abilene.
Baker was preceded in death by his parents, Aileen Dickson and Billy Baker Sr., his sister, Martha Smith, and brother, Michael Welch. He was born in Batesville, Ark., on July 6, 1949.
The service reflected Baker’s personality and the love and respect so many had for him. As people were being seated, Dorothy Gibbs played “San Antonio Rose,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and other Texas classics on the piano.
Friends and colleagues paid tribute to Baker’s lasting impact on Dinosaur Valley and the state park system. And they told a lot of stories. Like the time Baker borrowed a big dinosaur sculpture from Albuquerque, pulling it in the back of a trailer and drawing stares from truck drivers. When he stopped in one town at the courthouse square, word spread fast about the strange sight and Baker was called upon to give an impromptu talk to the local school about dinosaurs — which he was happy to do.
Then there was the time Baker got a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle and told his staff they could look, but they couldn’t ride it because they might wreck it. Then he proceeded to turn it upside down in the river and ended up soaking wet, wondering what kind of story he could tell to explain that.
Baker’s friend Paige Baize recalled visiting a shop in Paint Rock, Texas, that wove fine saddle blankets.
“We sat there watching them being woven,” he said. Then he quoted the words of Job from the Bible about the passing days being “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.”
As they watched the weavers at work, “the threads started coming together and making a pretty pattern,” Baize said. “Billy Paul made every one of his days count. His blanket is woven now. When he passed away he left every one of you with one of those blankets.”
Walt Dabney, the retired former director of the state parks department, said he considered Baker a true “character.”
“You meet a lot of people in this life — just some of them are characters,” Dabney said. “Not everybody can be a character. In my opinion the world needs more of them.”
Baker had a “huge sense of humor,” Dabney added. When people brought up Baker’s name in conversation, they usually smiled, he noted.
At the end of the service, Gibbs played “Happy Trails to You” as people filed by the open casket to pay their last respects to Baker. His cowboy hat rested on top of it during the service and when the casket was wheeled to the hearse for the trip to Oplin.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has not named a replacement for Baker and will go through the formal process of hiring a new park manager.
“At some point, the position will be adverised and the competitive process will occur,” Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman Rob McCorkle said. Meanwhile, Shannon Blalock, assistant park manager, and the park staff will continue to manage Dinosaur Valley's daily opertions.
Baker's shoes, everyone who knew him agreed, will be large ones to fill.
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