BOAZ, Ala. – Renowned financial professional and philanthropist Rick Baker was named the 2023 Snead State Community College Alumnus of the Year. Baker was recognized during the annual Alumni Homecoming event on Friday, June 16.
Baker grew up in Rodentown. He graduated from Crossville High School in 1977. During his high school days, Baker was able to complete college courses through Snead State’s Dual Enrollment program – known as “accelerated high school” at the time.
“Snead set my foundation for the rest of my life,” Baker said. “It changed the trajectory for me and my family – even my kids. If I hadn’t (gone) there, if Snead hadn’t taken me, I don’t know that I would be here today.”
Baker went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics from Auburn University and further his studies at the Wharton School of Business. He currently resides in Clearwater, Fla., and is a Managing Director at Merrill/Bank of America. He has worked in the banking and investment industry for more than 40 years and holds a national reputation as an accredited sports and entertainment wealth advisor with a vast portfolio of high-net-worth clients all over the U.S. Baker has been listed as a 2023 Forbes Best in State Top Wealth Advisor.
For his philanthropic efforts, Baker has been honored with several awards including, most recently, the 2022 Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award.
In January, Baker partnered with Snead State and committed to giving $25,000 each year in scholarships to 250 Crossville students over the next decade.
Snead State President Dr. Joe Whitmore said he met Baker about one year ago, and in their first conversation, Whitmore realized how special Baker was.
“I knew immediately that Rick was a man who cared about people, cared about students,” Whitmore said. “Because, during our conversation, we talked about a lot of different things that Snead is doing and what some of our vision was, but everything kept coming back to, ‘Well how can we help students? What can we do to make an easier path for them?’ He had just a real passion and sensitivity for students – especially those who may come from backgrounds that have difficulty seeking higher education.
“He really has a heart for students out there at Crossville where, as many of you know, it is predominantly Hispanic,” Whitmore added. “For a lot of those students, high school is the end of their educational journey. But through Rick’s generosity and working with us here at Snead State, he’s created a scholarship program so those students can have a chance to go to college.”
This year, Baker said the program was able to present scholarships to 29 students. During Crossville’s Awards Night, Baker recognized and presented an award to each recipient.
Whitmore said he was impressed with Baker’s commitment, but he was even more so impressed by the time Baker has spent with students individually, taking an interest in their lives and providing each of them with guidance and support, which he showcased at Awards Night.
“It’s not just about doing something philanthropic and getting name recognition,” Whitmore said. “It’s genuine. It’s real.”
Baker’s wife, Mariela Romero, spoke briefly before Baker was presented the Alumnus of the Year Award.
“To me, he is an inspiration,” Romero said. “He is someone that when I am afraid of dreaming big, he proves that those dreams can come true. So, when he came up with the idea for this scholarship program, I know that he was led with his heart, and that is the most touching thing that I can be witness to. So, I just hope that each of you have someone in your life who can inspire you to leave this world a better place like he has shown me.”
In accepting the award, Baker spoke briefly about his life – from his upbringing on Sand Mountain, to his educational and professional journey, to raising his adopted son Zaeid Meheddine, and more.
“I stand before you saying how blessed I have been,” Baker said, “and how I realize that it’s not the color of your skin, it’s not how much money you’ve got, it’s not what your politics are, your religion or anything else. We’re all the same. And as I get older, I realize more and more how much I just want to love and take care of everybody that I can. And I think maybe, through God’s grace, we’re going to be able to do that [at Crossville].
“I’ve won many awards over my life, but I assure you, this is one of the most special ones,” he added, adding his appreciation of his family as well as his best friend’s son who is an instructor at Snead State and attended Friday night’s ceremony. “I’m proud of my son, I’m proud of my wife, I’m proud of [Instructor Dr. Thomas Warren], and I most certainly am thankful for Snead and what they’ve done in my life.”