Dedicated volunteers can have many reasons for giving their time and effort to their charity of choice. Normally the reason comes down to a personal experience with that good cause.
Sam Baxter is an exception to that rule. Baxter's explanation of his own extensive volunteer work is as simple as it is practical: "The time spent is worth it."
Baxter, a native of Dermott, is the chief legal officer for Little Rock's First Orion. As a lawyer, he has had his name on a private practice firm and negotiated the finer points on many multi-million dollar transactions. With a family and kids along with his work, he has had more than enough on his plate to fill up his days and nights.
Nevertheless, Baxter spent years as a board member of Riverfest, the sprawling three-day music and arts festival that was a nonprofit engine for various downtown Little Rock projects and charities.
Recently, Baxter has spent two terms as chairman of the board of Little Rock's Ronald McDonald House. Janell Mason, executive director at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas, is quick to speak about how Baxter has been important for her organization, especially during the last two years.
"[We're] so fortunate to have Sam Baxter on [our] board," Mason says. "During his two terms as chair, Sam guided us through historic program expansion and some interesting times."
Mason points to Baxter stepping up when the covid-19 pandemic arrived. Two months into 2020 -- Baxter's first year as chairman of the Ronald McDonald House board -- the world changed.
"He was instrumental in helping us craft policies and procedures to keep both families and staff safe," Mason says. "And then, his legal expertise was invaluable when we successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Sam's pro bono work saved us thousands of dollars -- and our sanity."
On April 9, the Ronald McDonald House will hold the Chocolate Fantasy Ball, one of its biggest fundraisers of the year. Mason stresses the importance of this event, which will be live for the first time since the pandemic.
"This will be the 19th Chocolate Fantasy Ball," Mason says. "As is the case for all events of this nature, it not only raises awareness of our mission, but also vital capital to help support our operations. No organization in Central Arkansas is like [Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas] in the sense that our primary purpose is to provide a means for families to stay together when there is a child receiving critical medical treatment. Of course, a family could stay in a hotel room, but they will never have all the support mechanisms that RMHCA provides, a nice, clean room for the entire family, meals, play areas, support of our staff and other families going through similar circumstances, and more."
GAS CREDIT CARD
The small Delta town of Dermott was where Baxter was born in 1959. He lived there with his two older brothers until he was in the ninth grade. Mom was a "homemaker and Dad was a farmer in the row crop business."
Dermott clearly holds a special place in Baxter's memory.
"It was a great place to grow up," Baxter says. "You had free run of the entire town without worrying about anybody. I roamed on my bike and searched the ditches for bottles. I could get two cents for each one I found. People were incredibly friendly there."
Baxter paints a picture of Dermott as a "typical small town" where his elementary school was within easy walking distance "six blocks from my house."
"My mom ordered groceries over the phone," Baxter recalls. "They would deliver them to the house. At the Texaco station, you could leave a credit card in the register and use that to pay for gas. [Dermott] was a special place for me as a kid."
As cable TV was still years away, young Baxter didn't stay inside very much and instead was outdoors playing whatever sport was in season. Basketball was his favorite. Every night Baxter would join his brothers and parents at the dinner table.
"We all had our specific places at the table," Baxter notes. "There was no fast food in Dermott at that time. Mom was a great cook. She did all kinds of unusual stuff. She cooked a rib roast in the oven that was incredible."
When Baxter was 14, his family went through a dramatic change, moving from Dermott to San Antonio, looking for better "educational opportunities." Baxter and his two brothers would attend the Texas Military Institute there. It was a huge change.
"The first two weeks were tough," Baxter says. "Being homesick and being comfortable with what was going on, it wasn't easy. But San Antonio didn't have the feel of a big city. It had a nice downtown. It grew out instead of up."
The Texas Military Institute had half of its students attending school during the day and the other half were students who boarded at the school.
"We had 80 people in the dorm," Baxter says. "We had students literally from all over the world. We had a number of students from Mexico and El Salvador, in particular."
The strict routine at the Military Institute -- starting the day with morning formations and ending the day in study hall -- was a comfort to Baxter. The school taught its students how to deal with problems without their parents.
Baxter enrolled and stayed in the Military Institute's ROTC program all of the four years he was there. Even with his experience in ROTC, Baxter did not sign up for military service after graduating from the Military Institute.
"I've always been very interested in military history and have the highest admiration for those that have served," Baxter says. "I've known two survivors of the Bataan Death March, and one of my high school ROTC instructors was captured in Vietnam and escaped while in transport to a prison camp. He introduced me to the heli- copter pilot that picked him up in the jungle, a very memorable experience for me and for him, of course."
A LUCKY FAN
The next stop for Baxter was a return to his home state to enroll in the University of Arkansas. There was never question in the Baxter house about going to college.
"It was the norm in my family," Baxter says. "My dad and mom went to college. I didn't know a family member that didn't go. I applied to a few [colleges] and got very close to going to SMU."
As an enthusiastic sports fan, Baxter counts himself lucky to be in Fayetteville when he was.
"I was there in the fall of 1977, which was the year [the football team] won the Orange Bowl and Lou Holtz was the coach," Baxter recalls. "We didn't miss basketball games. It was the time of the Triplets and Sidney Moncrief and then Joe Klein. We were always very good."
Graduating from college with an accounting degree, Baxter's aim was working with his father in the family business. Then Baxter notes, "the world changed with increasing interest rates and inflation and my dad encouraged me to go to law school."
Though he did not have a preconceived idea about the kind of law he wanted to practice after law school, Baxter would eventually marry his skill with numbers with his law degree. He worked for a while on the tax issues for retirement plans for a Pine Bluff law firm. When he realized that type of law work was "rigid," Baxter moved on to establish a private practice in Little Rock.
"The type of practice I was involved in is more of what I would call transactional and informational technology-related law," Baxter says.
Baxter's work caught the eye of a significant figure in a Little Rock business.
"We've been working together since the '90s, so about 30 years now," says Charles Morgan, former chairman and chief executive officer of Acxiom and currently CEO of First Orion. "Sam is an unusual lawyer. He enters in a contract and he's not a win-at-all-cost guy. He goes in with the idea of 'What are we trying to achieve and how can I get a fair resolution for both sides?'"
High-pressure deals with a lot at stake and a lot of moving parts didn't faze Baxter.
"Sam worked with me on worldwide transactions," Morgan says. "He has an amazing ability to look at a situation and figure out the right strategies to pursue. He has a really good brain. I'd put him against a high-dollar Boston lawyer and anybody in-between."
A DIFFERENT MEANING
During the years he was ironing out the wrinkles in complex deals, Baxter was raising a family of two boys with his wife, Lisa. The pair met at a Pine Bluff wedding and Baxter notes that the first date included him cooking fried chicken.
Even though Baxter had never attended the Riverfest festival, he joined the board in 1991 and became chairman in 1996. His work for Riverfest included studying long contracts for the music acts and serving drinks at vendor booths.
"Riverfest was a very good thing for downtown Little Rock," Baxter notes. "The economics were hard. The cost of producing the festival as the venues expanded became a really expensive thing to do."
In 2015, Mason asked Baxter to consider joining Ronald McDonald House's board of directors. Baxter says at that point "I hadn't had any contact or dealings with the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas but like everyone had heard of it."
Since joining the board, Baxter has overseen a significant expansion of the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock.
"One of Sam's biggest achievements was the opening the first Ronald McDonald Family Room in Central Arkansas," Mason says. "This program is located in the hospital at UAMS on the neonatal intensive care floor and provides a place of respite for families steps down the hallway from their critically ill baby's room. It was great to see Sam at the podium at its grand opening alongside Dr. Cam Patterson, UAMS chancellor. Since that time, even with covid restrictions, the Family Room has served over 2,500 families in two short years."
Baxter's great work for the charity came out of a recognition of the need for help.
"When I was asked to consider joining the board of directors, Lisa and I visited the House," Baxter recalls. "Keep in mind that this was prior to the opening of the current House, which is three times the size. We were meeting in a very small conference room that also served as a library when a young lady came in and stepped into what looked like a closet, which we were informed was the nursing room. At that point, the project to build the new house had a different meaning for me."
For more information about Little Rock's Ronald McDonald House's Chocolate Fantasy Ball, go to rmhcarkansas.org/ chocolate-fantasy-ball-2022.html.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dermott, Jan. 23, 1959
• IF I COULD GET ON A PLANE TOMORROW, I WOULD GO TO: Either Australia or Argentina. I've been to both and hope to go back again.
• ADVICE I GOT AT AN EARLY AGE THAT HAS STUCK WITH ME TO THIS DAY: Given to me by my mother. When we were in the car headed somewhere (and on many other occasions), she always coached us (my brothers and me) to use nice manners.
• MY FAVORITE DESSERT IS: Tie between ice cream (vanilla or chocolate) and cheesecake
• I CAN'T START MY MORNING WITHOUT: Reading the newspaper and checking email while I have a cup of coffee.
• I'M COMPLETELY RELAXED WHEN I: Am sitting near the water watching the sun rise or set.
• MY FONDEST MEMORY AS AN ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS FAN: This is tough one, but I have to say it was at the SWC basketball tournament in Dallas. Eddie Sutton was wearing a crushed red velvet jacket, which he took off and threw when protesting a call. Of course, the technical foul followed. The next day Darrell Walker was quoted in the paper to the effect that he was unhappy that Coach Sutton had treated the jacket that way and that he wanted it.
• THE FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY WOULD BE: My grandparents John and Bess Baxter (my Dad's parents) and Fred and Wilma Stuckey (my Mom's parents; yes, Fred and Wilma). Knowing what I know now, I would love to have dinner and an extended conversation with them.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Busy