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It is rare for a stake president to pass away while serving especially only after two years in his calling, but that is what happened in the Washington, D.C. Stake on February 1, 2018. The headline, LDS Stake President Dies After Being Overcome by Carbon Monoxide, was published on Meridian Magazine and similar headlines made the news via radio, TV, newspaper and the internet.  The sudden, accidental passing of President James R. Baird shocked his family, his flock and the community, but beneath the headlines of his death is the more compelling story of his life.  A Facebook page has over 1,200 members pouring in messages remembering and honoring how he touched their lives.  He was beloved by family, friends, members of his stake and the community.  
In May of 2017 President Baird was a guest speaker at a mosque in Potomac, Maryland. Speaking wasn’t enough.  He wanted to serve them and offered to help prepare and serve dinner when some 2,000 muslims broke their fast at the end of Ramadan on June 24th. A wonderful friendship formed and many of the muslims including their leader, Imam Bahraini, attended his funeral. 

Imam Bahraini and President Baird at the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Maryland.

President Baird’s legacy of service is so well known that his family posted “in lieu of flowers, we ask that you honor James by making a deliberate sacrifice to serve another this week…To James, relationships were more important than money, possessions, or personal pride…” President Baird not only cared for others, he deeply felt the joys and sadness of those around him and quickly formed meaningful friendships.
During a tender moment in the hospital President Baird’s First Counselor in the Stake Presidency, D. Nathan Sheets, made a promise to his dear friend James. He promised to tell his life story.  Here are President Sheets remarks from the funeral held at the Washington, D.C Stake Center on February 10, 2018.

I am honored to raise my voice today in praise of one of the best, most noble men that I have ever known.  James Richards Baird was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, the third of Florence and Hugh Baird’s nine children.  He spent most of his childhood in Provo, Utah, before serving a mission in Louisiana.  Upon on his return, he and Melinda were married—and they had four wonderful children and, as of now, ten grandchildren.  They raised their family in Littleton, Colorado, where they lived from 1981-2001.  James worked there as a jeweler, and owned several jewelry stores.  In 2001, James and Melinda moved to Bloomington, Indiana, for Melinda to pursue a Ph.D. in piano performance at Indiana University.  While in Bloomington, James was in the construction and real estate business.  

During these years, he also held multiple callings in the Church.  He served for many years as a seminary teacher.  He was in bishoprics and Young Men’s presidencies.  In Indiana, he served as the President of a Young Single Adult branch.     

James and Melinda came to the Washington, DC, area in the summer of 2008.  They moved into the Rockville Ward.  I was serving as bishop at that time, and like many others, was instantly drawn to them.  I remember speaking with James and Melinda just a few weeks after their arrival.  I said something like, “Thank you for all your contributions to the ward.”  With characteristic modesty, they responded, “Well, we haven’t done anything yet. . .”  At that point, the following words came to my mind—“Yes, but you just wait!”

Over the succeeding years, James served as a counselor in the bishopric, as the Young Men’s President, and eventually as a beloved and energetic Bishop.  The large Ward thrived under his leadership. Many of the youth served missions.  People were baptized and brought back into the warm embrace of Church activity.  Along the way, the ward was split into several pieces to augment other congregations in the Stake, but the core of the Rockville ward remained as vibrant as ever.  During these years, Melinda built a wonderful Ward choir and served as the Stake Young Women’s President.

Next came the watershed weekend in November 2015.  President Russell M. Nelson visited to reorganize the Washington, D.C. Stake.  That Saturday, he spoke with the outgoing Stake Presidency, Bishops, the High Council, and other leaders.  Then, after prayerful consideration, President Nelson called and set James apart as our Stake President.  The Spirit that attended these events was powerful.  

The Washington, D.C. Stake Presidency: President Robert Nelson, President James Baird and President Nathan Sheets.

This calling gave James new and expanded opportunities to serve.  He fully lived the counsel in the Book of James regarding the unselfish nature of “pure religion.”  He threw himself into his calling with great energy and intensity.  He worked to know all of the members of the Stake in a personal way.  He attended stake events, ward events, and the important events in the lives of the members.  He was there with us during our times of joy, and our seasons of sorrow.  

But his extraordinary effectiveness went far beyond that.  He deeply felt our challenges and difficulties.  He pondered them in quiet moments.  He prayed for us.  He didn’t serve out of responsibility or obligation, but rather out of love for the Savior and love for us, his brothers and sisters.  His heart was larger than that of any man I have ever known.  

But coupled with his wonderful heart was an equally powerful tongue.  He had a unique capacity to express his feelings in words—both verbally and in writing.  He was quick to offer a kind word, express appreciation, or testify of the Lord’s tender mercies.  He sent many emails that gave hope, built confidence, and offered counsel.  This talent also made him a great teacher.  Drawing on the amazing range of his own experiences—from the lessons learned through his own occasional misadventures to the formation of diamonds and understanding of the stars and planets—he was a riveting storyteller.  Often through humor but sometimes through tears, his stories spoke of Gospel truths in ways that resonated with all the members of the Stake.

The James and Melinda Baird Family.

When I reflect on James and his ministry, I cannot say his work was done.  His work would never be done.  There will always be another heart to cheer, another tear to help wipe away.  But never have I known a man who was so prepared for his final interview with the Savior.  

Indeed, my mind returns again and again to the hymn which John Taylor sang to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail.  It tells of the blessings associated with service.  The storyteller says that by sharing his bread with a weary stranger, the crust became “manna to [his] taste.”  By sharing water, he drank and “never thirsted more.”  By giving up his bed, he dreamed as if in Eden’s Garden.  By attending to the stranger’s wounds, he forgot his own pains and felt peace in his broken heart.  These are all lessons that James himself also had learned well.

Then, in the song’s final verse, comes the great climax—and the great lesson:

Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named,
“Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”         

Such is the life of the great man we celebrate today.  He literally did give up his food, his sleep, and his energy in our service—and ultimately in the service of the Lord.  

It is my prayer that we will remember him, and honor him, by seeking ourselves to live as he lived.