On Wednesday afternoon, Wrightsville Beach gathered to say goodbye to the man who family and friends said touched many lives as a local restaurant owner and consummate fisherman. Johnnie Baker, longtime owner of Bridge Tender Restaurant & Marina and Fish House Grill, died at his Airlie Road home on Sunday, March 26. He was one day past his 79th birthday.
Baker was a deacon and elder at Little Chapel on the Boardwalk in Wrightsville Beach, where a celebration of his life was held Wednesday, March 29.
Baker’s family remembered his as a committed family man and lover of the outdoors. His wife, Estelle, owner of the Fisherman’s Wife, said Baker lived his life to the fullest, building strong relationships with family and friends, while going out of his way to help people in need.
“He loved his life,” she said. “I never realized when I fell in love with him 50 years ago that I would have the life I had with him. He and I had a relationship that not many couples have today.”
Estelle Baker said her husband will be remembered for his generosity.
“If he could figure out a way to help you, that’s what he would do,” she said. “He truly made a difference.”
Son Jay Baker said his father will also be remembered for his love of the water, particularly boating and fishing.
“He loved fishing like nothing else,” he said of his father, recalling the many fishing trips he took his family on throughout the years. “His favorite places to be were this porch or on the ocean. So long as he could see the water.”
Fishing was always a part of family life, Jay Baker said, with the funniest being the failure to document the white marlin caught in the Oregon Inlet in the Outer Banks when he and sister Allison were still children. They had just started the day of fishing, as Allison tells it, and hadn’t even put out the outriggers yet when they first hooked the giant fish.
Estelle fought it from the captain’s chair while 9-year-old Allison steered the 46-foot sport fisher and Johnnie helped bring in the white marlin.
Victoriously, they posed with the fish while Estelle took a photo with the Polaroid instant camera. They tossed the fish back into the sea, only to learn that Estelle’s camerawork only captured the bill of Johnnie’s hat, with no proof of the day’s great catch. But the family said that while the picture didn’t materialize, the memory of the fun day on the ocean never faded.
“We laughed and laughed and laughed,” Jay recalled of the missed photo.
Baker grew up in Wilson, N.C., where he graduated the college that is now called Barton College. He insisted his sweetheart Estelle finish at East Carolina University before he would marry her.
Originally mixing chemicals in the garage, Baker started an industrial chemical company that manufactured corrosion control products for air conditioners and other water-cooled appliances. He had launched the company in Charlotte and would travel there Monday through Friday, returning home on the weekends to spend time with the family.
His original plan for the building that Bridge Tender Restaurant was to turn it into a laboratory, but with the help of local business partners, he saw its potential for success as a restaurant, which opened in 1976. A decade later, he added the marina to the restaurant, and later turned the Hieronymus Seafood location into what is now the Fish House Grill. Baker also owned the Crest Theater for a while, turning it into a fitness club before selling the building.
He was a former member of the Board of Trustees at Cape Fear Academy and Barton College and a member of the board of First Citizens Bank in Wilmington. He was a master mason at St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1 in Wilmington. The family asks that memorial contributions can be made to Barton College, Shriner’s Hospital or The Little Chapel on the Boardwalk.