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Legacy That Speaks to Arizona's Future

My Turn, AZCentral.com, Sun Jul 28, 2013 8:00 PM

His suit was business basic. His glasses were standard black. His smile was genial. Jack Pfister looked unassuming, more like an affable favorite uncle than a high-profile executive. But few Arizonans have had as much power and influence for as many years.

Even fewer have stacked up such a broad record of public service, from education to the arts to growth policy.

Pfister shaped vital power, water and flood-control decisions as the top executive of Salt River Project from 1976 to 1991.

He left his mark on higher education, serving on the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University staff and the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation.

Whenever there was a problem, Pfister was likely to be chairing or co-chairing the team that was hunting for a solution. He knew how to bring people together, set ideologies aside and focus on practical results.

As a member of countless boards, committees and commissions, he was a driving force in everything from stabilizing Maricopa County finances and creating a long-overdue state Department of Environmental Quality to getting voter approval for the Martin Luther King Day holiday after a storm of controversy.

Arizonans lost a true leader when Pfister died four years ago, at age 75. But we can draw on his example and experience — as relevant, in these polarized times, as they ever were. His key principles included:

Don't get stuck in partisan politics. Jack served on the transition teams for Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat. He was a lifelong Republican, but he realized the party didn't have a monopoly on good policies.

Become a diplomat. Early in his career at SRP, Jack discovered that adversarial tactics were counterproductive to success with labor, environmental and other thorny issues. He used what he called "private diplomacy," a mix of listening, civility, finding common ground and looking for win-win solutions. (Not to be confused with being a pushover — Pfister seldom came out of negotiations a loser.)

Stop looking for a single great leader. Arizona used to be run by a few elite movers-and-shakers, including Pfister. But he saw the power structure become diffused and welcomed the change. He called for "a large number of people who are willing to take risks and assume leadership roles."

Value diversity. Pfister 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 strength from their multicultural society."

Take care of Arizona. In a column written for New Year's 1991, Pfister laid out the state's challenges. It could almost have been written today. His to-do list included putting adequate resources into education, stabilizing state finances, promoting economic development that raises real per capita wages and repairing a patchwork environmental framework.

Be a mentor. Pfister's files are filled with thank-you notes from those who got his guidance, advice and sympathetic ear. The best route to success, he believed, is helping others become successful, too.

Pfister wanted to write about Arizona history. He never got the chance. But he became part of our history, helping to mold the state and make it a better place. He left a legacy of service, tolerance and common sense that Arizonans should build on.

Kathleen Ingley, a former editorial writer at The Republic, is writing a biography of Jack Pfister. For more information about Jack and to share memories, go to jackpfister.com.

Jack Pfister and Babbitt