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Joanne Alfano Baker, trailblazer in law and champion of women, dies at 67

Radnor resident Joanne Alfano Baker, 67, a trailblazer in law when men overwhelmingly dominated the field, died Monday, Nov. 22 of a pulmonary embolism.

Radnor resident Joanne Alfano Baker, 67, a trailblazer in law when men overwhelmingly dominated the field, died Monday, Nov. 22, of a pulmonary embolism.

A petite woman described as poised, authentic, and sharp as a tack by those who knew her, Mrs. Baker carved a successful career on her own terms while prioritizing motherhood, at a time when women were expected to choose between the two.

“Her career was a point of pride for her and her intellect was a point of pride for her,” said Mrs. Baker’s only daughter, Sarah Diane Alexandra Baker. “But I don’t know what she would have told us if she were sitting here whether she ever thought that she got the balance right.”

If Mrs. Baker ever struggled in that balance, her resumé bears no traces of it.

Born Dec. 20, 1953, to an IRS worker and homemaker, Mrs. Baker spent her early summers perched on a study tree in her Abington home’s yard, reading whatever book she could get her hands on.

The early love of reading and learning would guide many of her pursuits, including the decision to study English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, part of one of the first handful of graduating classes that included women.

Mrs. Baker would continue her studies at Villanova Law School, where she edited the law review before graduating magna cum laude in 1978 and earning a position at top law firm Duane Morris LLP.

Through Duane Morris and Villanova Law School, Mrs. Baker met the love of her life, Stephen Clinton Cover Baker, whom she got engaged to within six weeks of dating.

In some ways, they were opposites. She loved fiction, the works of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, whereas her husband preferred to sit with the writing of Winston Churchill.

Where Mrs. Baker was more interested in discussing what the law ought to be, her husband preferred to understand how it could help him win cases. The complementary pairing lasted for almost 43 years, and until the end, Stephen Baker remained one of Mrs. Baker’s biggest admirers.

“She was the best natural lawyer I ever encountered,” he said. “I never saw anyone who could do it as well as her.”

Still, the all-consuming demands for an associate on the partnership track left much to be desired for Mrs. Baker, who enjoyed debating and writing about legal philosophy instead of toiling her way through courtrooms, where — no matter how good at it she was — she often faced misogyny, according to accounts she would relay to friends and family.

What’s more, she didn’t want someone else raising her child. After her daughter was born, Mrs. Baker left Duane Morris in 1984 and took a job as an adjunct instructor at Villanova Law School. She would become chief law clerk to the first woman to serve on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Judge Phyllis W. Beck. Mrs. Baker would stay with Beck for almost a decade, while always making time for her daughter.

“Talking to me about my thoughts on the world and books, what we heard on NPR, and all manner of things,” said Sarah Baker, who remembers her mother’s steady presence as she paved her way in her own career.

Mrs. Baker’s retirement cleared a new path for her to help others, consulting for the Independence Foundation of Philadelphia, whose focus is to help the most vulnerable in the region. And for more than 20 years, she would help staff a resource hotline for women navigating everything from eviction, divorce, or medical problems, to job loss.

“I do think her experiences as a young female attorney definitely informed her commitment to helping other women succeed in life,” said Cheryl Brubaker, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center.

When the resource helpline was slow, Mrs. Baker would regale staffers and volunteers with tales of her courtroom days and photos of her two young grandchildren.

For a woman who loved order and predictability, Mrs. Baker could just as easily let loose to chase after and dote on her grandchildren.

Survived by her husband, daughter, two grandchildren, and two sisters, Mrs. Baker’s life was celebrated at The Episcopal Academy on Dec. 11.