Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Henry Baker Jr. passed away Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., following complications from a stroke he suffered last week. He was 88 years old.
Baker reshaped Tennessee politics, helping to define two key parties within the state. Hailed as one of Tennessee's greatest statesmen, Baker inspired other lawmakers to create a better state even after he retired from politics, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
"Howard Baker was Tennessee's favorite son, one of America's finest leaders and for Honey and me an indispensable friend," Sen. Alexander told The Tennessean in a statement. "He built our state's two-party political system and inspired three generations to try to build a better state and country. It is difficult to express how much we honor his life and how much we will miss him."
COLLECTION OF PHOTOS: Life and work of Howard Baker Jr.
But the Huntsville native's influence in politics stretched far past state lines and even national borders. The statesman held many prominent positions: U.S. Senator, Senate Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader, President Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
Through it all, Baker's integrity inspired lawmakers from opposing sides to come together to resolve pressing issues. After his death Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said both political parties will continue to honor his legacy.
"Senator Baker truly earned his nickname, the Great Conciliator," said McConnell. "I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties."
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. also said Baker was one of his heroes.
"We have lost one of the greatest public servants Tennessee has ever had, and one of the greatest statesmen this Nation has ever known," Duncan said in a statement. "I've have known Senator Baker for most of my life, and he was a real hero to me. I admired and respected him almost as much as my own father."
The former Tennessee senator became well known nationally when he helped guide the nation through one of its darkest moments, the Watergate break-in and cover-up. During the televised hearings into the scandal that ended Richard Nixon's presidency, Baker raised the most memorable question from Watergate: "What did the President know, and when did he know it."
His mission to uncover the truth allowed him to become "one of the Senate's most towering figures", as McConnell called him on the Senate floor Thursday. As a result, Baker mentored many prominent lawmakers, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist.
"Howard Baker was my most significant mentor, a great public servant, the epitome of the "citizen legislator" and a model to which every American can aspire," said Frist. "He represented the best of America. We will miss him dearly."
Surprisingly as a young man, Baker didn't have political ambitions. He got his start in politics in 1950 when he managed his father's successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1964, a year after his father's death, Baker decided to run for the U.S. Senate in a special election and lost. But Baker didn't allow defeat to deter him; he ran again in 1966 and won 56 percent of the popular vote, becoming Tennessee's first popularly elected Republican senator since Reconstruction.
He went on to serve three terms from 1967 until 1985.
TIMELINE: Remembering Howard Baker Jr.
During that time, Gerald Ford considered Baker as a running mate in the 1976 election. Instead Kansas Sen. Bob Dole joined Ford on the ticket. The next year, Baker was elected Senate Minority Leader in 1977, a position he held until 1981. Baker ran for U.S. president in 1980, but dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination.
In 1981, Baker was elected Senate Majority Leader. He held that position until his retirement in 1985. While he served in that role, Baker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Next, the former senator served as President Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff from 1987 to 1988.
VIDEO: Tom Brokaw discusses his time with Sen. Baker
Former NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw discussed the passing of Senator Howard Baker Jr.
After he retired from politics, Baker practiced law with several Tennessee firms. But in 2001, he returned to politics when President George W. Bush appointed him as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
The statesman made a profound impact at the University of Tennessee where he earned his law degree in 1949. Baker's legacy will continue through UT's nonpartisan institute named in his honor. The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy was founded in 2003 on UT's campus. The center's mission is to educate the next generations of leaders on public policy and civic engagement.
"The Baker Center stands as a living legacy to a member of the greatest generation," said Matt Murray, director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for public policy. "Sen. Howard Baker will always represent what is good about those who serve our country unselfishly. We are honored to carry on his work to create a more civil engagement in our government."
For his many achievements, UT awarded Baker its first honorary doctorate in the spring of 2005.
"Our country has lost a great statesman and a great Tennessean," said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. "Sen. Baker will live on in our hearts forever as a man who believed that government was to serve the people."
The University of Tennessee said Baker's body will lie in repose at the rotunda in the Howard Baker Jr. Center on the university's campus from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday. His funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, July 1 at First Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Huntsville, Tenn.
In recent years, Baker was in ailing health. He is survived by his wife, Nancy Kassebaum, a former Kansas Senator, and his two children, Darek and Cynthia, whom he had with his first wife, Joy. Baker was married to Joy until 1993 when she died of cancer. Joy Baker was the daughter of former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.
Contributing:USA TODAY, The Tennessean, The University of Tennessee Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.