Since this is the 46th anniversary edition of your hohometown weekly newspaper, I thought I would tell you about my most memorable experiences in my 44 years as a small-town newspaperman.
When I started the paper on June 27, 1974, with Arthur Hewitt and Bob Lightfoot, we saw it as a good investment as the years went by in the new Master Planned City of Fountain Hills. The developer, McCulloch Properties, said it would have an eventual population of 78,000 people. As the community became incorporated and densities were reduced in new areas of development, that figure has been reduced to slightly more than 34,000 at buildout.
I retired at the start of 2018. My son, Brent, was named publisher. I was particularly proud of him winning the “Best Young Professional Award” given by the Chamber of Commerce last year.
I’m doing pretty well in Las Vegas, except for how windy it is.
Our miracle grandson, Camden, who was born with a congenital heart defect, is doing just fine. He’s still running wherever he goes. His kindergarten teacher calls him the brightest boy in her class.
I never thought Iwould be living anywhere but Fountain Hills. Camden and my neurologist are the reasons for our move and early retirement. So, here we are, Nevada residents.
This week, I am taking a look back at my career as a small-town newspaperman. The numbering is not a ranking of the stories. It is only used for separating the stories.
1. The fence and how it nearly cost me my life:
We had the two wettest years in our town’s history in 1978 and ‘79. Both years we had more than 20 inches of precipitation. The Salt and Verde rivers were both flowing at near capacity.
We got word that the Verde River bridge on the Beeline Highway was about to wash out. I drove out there and, sure enough, the approaches on both sides of the bridge were gone, making it impassable. I turned down the dirt road where the BaJa Gas station is now located.
I was surprised to see how wide the river was and how the bridge was like an island in the middle of the river. There was a fence along the river’s edge. Normally, there was about 15 feet of space between the river’s edge and the fence. In those days, the tribe sold one-day fishing licenses and you could cast from this area.
As I reached over the fence to get my photo, I heard a strange sound getting increasingly louder. Then I saw the bank giving way. The fence was rolling up and disappearing in the rushing water. I took a giant step backward and it was just in time. The ground I was standing on just seconds earlier was gone. If I hadn’t heard that noise, I would have been wrapped up in that fencing and probably been swept down river. Did I feel fortunate? You bet!
2. Casino ground-breaking ceremony and the eagles overhead:
One of the most amazing sights I ever saw was when I was covering the groundbreaking ceremony for the original casino at Fort McDowell.
When Tribal President Clinton Pattea finished his speech, two bald eagles flew in circles over the ceremony. The bald eagle nesting sites on the Verde River were one of the factors that prevented the building of Orme Dam that would have flooded most of the reservation.
3. Mayflower moving vans and the raid of Fort McDowell Casino:
I got a call at about 6:15 in the morning from a friend who said there was some excitement happening at the Fort McDowell Casino.
I arrived at about 6:45 a.m. to find cars parked along Fort McDowell Road. Tribal members were standing next to their cars with make-shift signs saying, “Save our casino.”
Federal agents had arrived at the original casino at about 5 a.m. and began loading gaming machines into Mayflower moving vans. As the trucks were about to leave, the tribe started arriving with dump trucks and other large vehicles from their sand and gravel operation.
They then blocked off all of the exits creating a standoff. Additional heavy construction vehicles were brought in from Monks Construction in Fountain Hills. Governor J. Fife Symington flew in by helicopter to meet with Pattea. The tribal president walked across the parking lot alone encouraging his tribal members to remain calm. He did this as federal agents pointed their rifles at him.
4. The helicopter arrival of Secretary of the Interior James Watt in Fountain Park.
It was a pleasant morning, especially for mid-September, when the Watt entourage was scheduled to arrive. At exactly 8:13 a.m., we saw six Huey helicopters approaching from the west. It was almost a surreal sight, seeing the Vietnam-era helicopters passing low over the McDowell Mountains.
It reminded me of the start of the M*A*S*H* television show.
Watt was the first to step out of one of the helicopters. He was dressed in a checkered shirt, blue jeans, western boots and a western-style hat that he took off and waved to the crowd. He also had a bola tie instead of the traditional tie you would expect to see on a presidential cabinet member.
A crowd of some 200 was there to greet Watt. Republican Club member Mary Rairigh got a committee together on the weekend to call as many people as they could inviting everyone to come to the park on Tuesday morning.
Her husband, Richard, was president of the Fountain Hills Republican Club. He introduced Watt who introduced the men who accompanied him.
In Arizona, Watt met with tribal leaders from Fort McDowell where opposition was intensifying.
Watt told the crowd, “A preferred alternative will be made known next month by the Central Arizona Water Control Study group. The environmentalists and Indians have said they will sue to stop it. If Orme is dropped, the majority of the Arizona Congressional delegation will be enraged after supporting the project. There are no easy answers,” Watt said.
But in his short time of serving as the Interior Secretary, he proved he could make a decision, no matter how difficult or controversial. Watt did decide in favor of Fort McDowell and that led the tribe to begin economic development endeavors including the highly profitable casino and farm. The decision was made to increase the height of Waddell Dam and size of Lake Pleasant, northeast of Phoenix.
I’ll continue my list of memorable moments next week. In the meantime, try and stay cool.