‘A great man of wisdom’

Published 10:14 am Thursday, May 25, 2017

James Pendleton “Penny” Baber, of Cumberland, is being remembered as a wise man with a heart of gold.

Baber, who opened his general law practice in Cumberland in 1961, died Monday at 81-years-old after living in the county his entire life.

Catherine Fleischman, Baber’s daughter, said her father never wanted to leave the county even when he was given opportunities elsewhere.

James “Penny” Baber

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“His impact on me was to not be ambitious but thoughtful and committed,” Fleischman said. “He inspired me the first time he told me not to throw trash out the window when I was very young … Back when we lived in Richmond, I joined the Clean City Committee and became the chairman and got involved in recycling.”

She said when she takes runs on forest roads, she can’t help but pick up trash as part of her exercise.

“Dad never gave any of us any advice. If we said, ‘Dad, what should we do?,’ he would say, ‘Think for yourself,’” Fleischman said. “It was powerful, wonderful stuff. He was really generous and gentle at the same time.”

She said Baber told her once he was much more comfortable defending than prosecuting people.

Weeks ago, Baber was named the 2017 recipient of the Tradition of Excellence Award by the Virginia State Bar’s (VSB) General Practice Section.

According to a VSB press release, Baber was recognized for embodying “the high tradition of personal and professional excellence and for benefiting the community and enhancing the esteem of general practice attorneys in the state.”

After graduating with 18 others in his class in 1954 from Cumberland High School, Baber attended the present-day University of Richmond. He graduated from the University of Richmond in 1958 and received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1961.

The initial push to be a lawyer, Baber said during an interview in 2015, came from his old friend Richmond College buddy Johnny Rennolds. It was their idea to join the Navy, then attend law school together.

While Rennolds was able to join the Navy, Baber was rejected due to his hearing. “And I never got drafted, so I had to go to law school,” Baber said in 2015, adding that he paid $275 per semester while studying.

Speaking about the start of his law practice in Cumberland, Baber had said, “I didn’t (even) have a secretary. I just hung up a shingle and rented some space over in that little building over there, I rented it from the county, actually,” he said.

Penny was the county’s Commonwealth’s Attorney from 1967 and was re-elected every election cycle until 1983.

Frankie Baber, Penny’s nephew, called his uncle a great man of wisdom and humility.

“We’re going to miss him, I can tell you that,” Frankie said. “I think all of Cumberland County is going to miss him.”

Frankie said he never heard anyone speak a bad word about Penny.

Maria Baber, Penny’s sister, said he was a meticulous lawyer who worked to help people with limited resources.

“I have a lot of people come to me and say, ‘You know, your brother didn’t charge me,’” Maria said. “The law to him was to protect people and to help people.”

Maria said she had someone come up to her recently and say, “You know, I just love Mr. Baber. He helped me so much, and you know I went in to pay him, I saved up some money, and he said ‘No, that’s OK.’”

Maria said it was always nice to be in Penny’s presence.

Laura Baber, Penny’s niece, said he was the finest man she’d known.

Susan Robbins, Penny’s cousin, said he loved life.

“Penny loved to read, he loved to give parties, he loved farming, he loved all of life really, his family and his friends,” Robbins said. “He gave great, great Christmas parties. Fire places burning at each end of the house,” Robbins said.

Katherine Moore, who worked with Penny in 2002 after passing the State Bar Exam, said he was highly respected.

“He was very knowledgeable, very well-respected amongst the other attorneys in the community,” Moore said.

She described Penny as “absolutely brilliant.”

She said Baber’s life didn’t revolve around being an attorney.

“He enjoyed working on the farm up here in Cumberland, and he put his family first,” Moore said. “He was very well-balanced in that.”

Moore said he had a huge impact on the community.

“Most of the deeds over at the courthouse I would say are probably written by him,” Moore said.

She said he was known as a very kind man who was very humble.

“He was very kind to people who were less fortunate who probably had mental illness or they had maybe some mental health disabilities or they were intellectually challenged; he was very kind to them,” Moore said.

During the 2015 interview, Baber said he hoped that some people would have a recollection of him as time moves on.

“I obviously haven’t done as much as I could’ve done,” Baber said during the interview. “I feel I made a good faith effort. …”

He said during the interview his satisfaction was in developing a sense of acceptance “of the value of what we are.”

A graveside service for Baber will be held Friday at 2 p.m. at 700 Cartersville Road.