Obituary: Nicholas Baxter, social entrepreneur

Nick Baxter. Picture: Contributed
Nick Baxter. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 9 November, 1947, in York. Died: 28, April, 2013, at Roxburghe House, Aberdeen, aged 65.

THE death of Nicholas, Nick, Baxter brings to an abrupt end the life of a man who brought proper care in the community to individuals who, in the prevailing circumstances of the 1970s, were had been left to languish, sometimes neglected and forgotten, in institutions which, rather than tending to their needs further isolated them from society.

Cornerstone, the charity he founded with a handful of individuals from Aberdeen in 1980, was initially organised from his family’s dining room. From that start, Cornerstone has grown to become one of Scotland’s largest charities, employing 1,700 staff and 300 volunteers in 20 council areas with an annual turn­over of more than ­­£30 million. It provides services for more than 2,000 adults, young people and children with learning and physical disabilities, mental health problems and other support requirements.

Nick’s family background provides little, if any, indication to his role as a ground-breaking social care provider and entrepreneur. It was, if anything, comfortably conventional. Born in York, his mother’s father, Thomas Smallbone Riley, held the MC from his service during the First World War. Thereafter he made his fortune designing and providing transport vehicles to the British Army. His daughter, Molly Riley, became an award-winning actress ­tutored under the stern eye of Lillian Bayliss at the Old Vic.

Nick’s own father, Clive Benjamin Baxter, had joined the army straight from Liverpool University in 1937 and spent most of the Second World War on the staff of General Archibald Wavell serving in the western desert and Italy. By the time of his son’s birth in 1947, he was a lieutenant-colonel and a senior figure in the Education Corps.

It was the tragic death of his father and elder sister Susan, shortly after the Coronation in 1952, which he and his wife had attended as guests, which had the greatest impact on the five-year old Nick. With his father still in uniform, the boy concluded he had died in heroic circumstances during a secret mission and that his sister was away at school. He was not dissuaded from this belief, even by his mother, for five or so years. He was ultimately told the truth – his father’s death had indeed been heroic but more prosaic than imagined by five-year-old Nick. He had met it trying to save his own daughter from being swept out to sea after their sailing boat was overturned by the wake of a passing barge off Gravesend. A companion, a non-swimmer was, however, rescued.

The obvious clue to Nick’s make-up can be found in his educational and religious background; he was deeply informed by his understanding and faith in Roman Catholicism. In many ways, the church took the place of family. He was educated by Jesuits at Mount St Mary’s College at Spinkhill near Sheffield. He remained a highly critical friend to the Church until he passed away. When he and his Aberdeen art student fiancée, Louise Gordon, married at the Edinburgh University Chaplaincy Centre on Epiphany in 1973, the priest who conducted the service was the renowned Dominican Provincial, Father Anthony Ross.

The former Archbishop of Glasgow, Bishop Mario Conti, was clearly moved by the news of his friend’s death. The pair had known one another from the time he had served as Bishop of Aberdeen. Archbishop Conti eventually became patron of Cornerstone along with June, Lady Aberdeen. Indeed, if any further evidence is necessary to understand how Nick’s faith informed his work the very name Cornerstone was drawn from the Bible in Psalm 118 verse 22 – “That which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” or to paraphrase, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

For Nick, and those who founded the charity such as Professor Mary Simpson, who acted as chairman for 20 years, and colleagues such as Sandy Murray of Langstane Housing Association, those “refused” were the disabled, handicapped and all too often neglected people whom they believed required to be taken back into the community rather than being institutionalised away from it.

Following graduation with a degree in sociology from London University, Nick joined Birmingham City Council as a trainee child care officer.

This was followed by a professional social work qualification from the University of Aberdeen in 1971. Subsequently he took a post with Grampian Regional Council where he became the senior social worker responsible for learning disability services.

Reflecting on his career experience in the 1970s, he grew to realise, as did a number of others, that there was a lack, even negative services, for people with learning disabilities in Scotland. Then, the concept of community care did not exist and people with learning disabilities were often marginalised. He concluded they should be able to live within their own communities, with their own homes and jobs, and not have to live in institutions. He saw Cornerstone as the means to work with parents or carers to allow them to be supported in the community. This led to the establishment of Cornerstone Society for the Mentally Handicapped in 1980 later to refine its title to Cornerstone Community Care.

It was unlike the discredited sham of “Care in the Community” in England, which saw disabled, handicapped and educationally challenged individuals decanted from institutions on to the streets with little or no support. Cornerstone, and similar related developments in Scotland, set out to fully integrate people into society.

Prof Simpson recalls: “It was a day for celebration when large institutions throughout Scotland, such as Lennox Castle near Glasgow and Ladysbridge, north of Aberdeen, were finally closed as being no longer required as ‘subnormality hospitals’.”

Starting with its first house in Granton Place, Aberdeen, Corner­stone served as a pioneering model of care becoming a quality standard for subsequent developments throughout Scotland. As the organisation grew, Nick recognised the importance of management and financial skills, and in 1994 he undertook an MBA. During his studies he fell under the influence of American management guru Edwards Deming.

Combining his open manner with Deming’s teachings, Nick was able to build an organisation staffed by highly committed professionals and volunteers.

In fulfilling Cornerstone’s aim to: “enable the people we support to enjoy a valued life”, the project won numerous accolades. It was the first agency in Scotland to achieve “Investors in People” status. It gained the Times/RIBA Award for the most outstanding community enterprise in Britain, presented by Prince Charles. In 2005 it was named the Barclays Charity Partner of the Year for Scotland.

Nick was named Ernst & Young UK Social Entrepreneur in 2003, and went on to receive other titles from the Institute of Directors, the British Chamber of Commerce, and the New Statesman. He stood down as chief executive in 2008 to be replaced by Edel Harris.

As he built Cornerstone he also had a remarkable family life. There were four children whom he and his wife rejoiced in. Grandchildren have followed. After his retirement they invested in a left-hand drive camper van and toured Europe for many months. They enjoyed travelling and loved New York City but it was France they adored, not least sharing holidays on the Île de Ré with family and friends. They eventually purchased a beautiful property in Charente, inland from France’s Atlantic coast.

Nick’s death in Roxburghe House, Aberdeen, is overshadowed by its apparent cause. Three months ago his family had noticed a deterioration in his health. Eventually the cause of what rapidly became a drastic collapse was diagnosed as Sporadic CJD. He died at Roxburghe with his family in attendance.

He is survived by his widow, Louise, and his four children Catherine, Francesca, Antonia and Nicholas. There are three grandchildren, Joe, Rory and Jemima.

A requiem mass will be held at St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen next Tuesday, 7 May, at 1:30pm.