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Jack's Biography: Excerpts

Introduction: The Change Agent

Stewart Mountain Dam was about to burst. It was February 1980 and two huge storms had clobbered Arizona. A third was on the way. If that storm hit full force, water would rise to the top of the aging dam forty-one miles upstream from Phoenix, and it would crumble. Water would roar through the city and its suburbs: up to three million gallons a second. It would pour into businesses, homes, and the Capitol complex. And two hundred thousand people would have to be evacuated.

Arizonans “must be prepared for the unthinkable,” the governor warned in a late-night press conference on February 15.

No one knew the risks better than Jack Pfister. As the top executive of Salt River Project, he headed the utility that operated the string of dams around Phoenix. He knew the structures were designed for water storage, not flood control.

SRP was already under attack for flooding a swath of the Phoenix metro area. A relentless series of storms had forced dam managers to release massive amounts of water down the normally dry Salt and Verde rivers. The water had taken out bridges, washed out river crossings, inundated neighborhoods, and flooded part of Sky Harbor International Airport. Phoenix had racked up millions of dollars in damage and lost business.

By luck or a miracle, that last storm veered away. Stewart Mountain Dam held. But Jack Pfister knew that Arizona would have to change how it handled water. Neither the state nor Salt River Project could go back to business as usual.

 . . . .

Born in 1933, Jack grew up in an Arizona with a small-town vision of itself, with the unbridled confidence that the only thing better than growth was more growth. It was a place of boosters and hucksters and new arrivals bent on remaking themselves. As every kid learned in school, the state’s economy was based on the four Cs: cattle, cotton, citrus, and copper — with the climate that attracts tourists sometimes added as number five. Rural lawmakers exerted outsized leverage at the legislature.

But the state’s self-image was becoming less and less like reality by the 1940s. Arizona was urbanizing rapidly, and the pace picked up dramatically after World War II. Jack Pfister became a key figure in bringing Arizona and Salt River Project into the modern era. Until his death in 2009, he had a hand in confronting many of the state’s toughest challenges, from ensuring a clean and stable water supply to managing explosive population growth.

As the general manager of Salt River Project from 1976 to 1991, he led a powerful institution begun in 1903 as a not-for-profit association to get federal loans for dams. Shortly afterwards, the association took advantage of the potential for hydropower and became a major supplier of electricity. Salt River Project is now the nation’s second-largest public power utility, based on generation, and has the fourth-largest customer base.

Jack helped transform it from an organization narrowly focused on agriculture to one that took part in major issues like the environment and social justice. He modernized its management, moving from authoritarian to participatory style.

Besides his role with Salt River Project, Jack left his mark on higher education as a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University staff, and the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation. He recruited a university president, worked to get more minorities into college, wrestled with tuition increases, and defied a governor over free speech.

He made a point of reaching across religious, racial, and ethnic lines. “States that are internationally competitive,” he observed, “will be those that provide cordial environments for diverse populations and draw their strengths from their multicultural society.”

“For reasons that I don’t understand, I am not afraid to expose myself to new ideas,” Jack told Phoenix New Times in 1990. “As a matter of fact, I find it invigorating. And I have made many significant changes in my views based upon a growing body of evidence that I was in error.”

“Jack was very much a forward thinker,” said former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. “He was at the leading edge of change in a lot of things in the community and at Salt River Project. Jack was a change agent. He challenged old ways of doing things if he thought they needed to be modernized.”

Jack was a quintessentially American success story, losing his father at the age of three, raised by a single mother, and rising to become one of the most influential figures in the state. He had a Westerner’s confidence in progress and a Ben Franklin’s belief in the power of self-education and self-improvement.

Jack developed such clout and respect that his name was tossed around as a possible candidate for governor during the 1987-88 recall push against Gov. Evan Mecham (who was sent packing by impeachment, instead). Jack brushed off the suggestion. Why should he have political ambitions, insiders quipped, when he already had as much power and influence as the governor?

 . . . .

You’d never know Jack’s status to look at him. He wore boxy, nondescript suits that did nothing to flatter his well-rounded proportions. His thick glasses had sturdy, practical frames that made him appear both owl-like and approachable. He preferred khakis to jeans and wore an eclectic succession of hats outside to protect a balding head from the ferocious Arizona sun.

Jack wasn’t interested in wealth. He lived for four decades in a low-slung, stucco ranch house in a comfortably middle-class part of Phoenix. For years, a neighbor, who had never met the family, assumed that the man who left for work every morning with a bulging briefcase was some sort of junior accountant. He was stunned to learn he’d been watching one of the top executives in Arizona.

Jack was the go-to person if you had a tough issue of public policy. Serving on countless boards, committees, and commissions, he was a driving force in everything from creating a long-overdue state Department of Environmental Quality to getting voter approval for a Martin Luther King Day holiday after a storm of controversy.

His secret: listening, truly hearing what each person had to say. At endless meetings, Jack paid attention to each speaker while others in the room were looking out the window and counting the planes going by. Jack knew how to digest what he’d heard. He had a genius for spotting common ground and figuring out compromises.

Although Jack was a lifelong Republican, he never thought the party had a monopoly on good policies. He served on the transition teams for Gov. Jane Hull, a Republican, and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat.

While his fingerprints are on a wide variety of change, they’re sometimes hard to find. He stayed behind the scenes to help craft Arizona’s historic Groundwater Management Act. Friends and colleagues knew that Jack was involved somehow in dealing with the aftermath of Three Mile Island, when a partial meltdown exploded the public’s confidence in nuclear power. But his name isn’t on the big committee reports. Instead, he was the crucial, unheralded intermediary in creating an organization that would standardize and ensure safety measures.

Jack focused on accomplishment, not accolades. If that meant letting others get most of the credit, it was fine with him.

Most of all, Jack loved being a mentor. He was always ready to give advice over lunch or listen sympathetically over a cup of coffee. Arizona used to be run by a few elite movers and shakers, including him. But he saw that power was becoming more diffuse, and he welcomed the change. He called for “a large number of people who are willing to take risks and assume leadership roles.”

Jack set an example of public service that few can match. His results-oriented approach to tough issues — respecting differences and looking for common ground — is more relevant than ever. Jack had a passion for his home state and its colorful past. He had a couple of projects for books that he never managed to finish. It’s no wonder he couldn’t find time to write about Arizona history. He was too busy making it.

Jack Pfister