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Jack Fister: A Voice From Prescott's Past Speaks to Arizona's Future

by Kathleen Ingley

“Local Boy Makes Good.” It’s a classic news story, and Prescott’s Jack Pfister was a classic example.

He oversaw one of the largest public power utilities in the nation, advised the state’s top leaders, put his time and energy into a wide range of causes and was the go-to person to lead the search for a solution on thorny issues. 

Jack died four years ago, at the age of 75. But his devotion to public service remains a model for Arizonans now and into the future.

He was born in Prescott in 1933. Money was tight, and not just because it was the depths of the Depression. His mother was widowed when he was three, and his brother Tad just 18 months old.

Jack went on to get degrees in engineering and law. He shaped vital power, water and flood-control decisions in Arizona as the top executive of Salt River Project from 1976 to 1991.

(Tad was a local success story, too. He became a veterinarian, served as public health officer for Santa Cruz County and was instrumental in founding a community health center there.)

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

He had such clout and respect that his name was tossed around as a possible candidate for governor during the recall push against Gov. Evan Mecham (who was sent packing by impeachment, instead). Jack brushed off the suggestion. He had no political ambitions. And why should he, insiders quipped, when he already had as much power and influence as the governor?

The local boy certainly made good. More important, he did good.

He served on 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.

In his many roles, Jack set an example that is more relevant to Arizonans than ever.

Volunteer.  From the Girl Scouts to the Phoenix Library Foundation to Arizona Town Hall, Jack didn’t watch life from the sidelines.

Nonpartisan. Jack served on the transition teams for Gov. Jane 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.

Diplomat. Early in his career at SRP, Jack realized the head-on, adversarial approach was 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 – Jack seldom came out of negotiations a loser.)

Egalitarian. Jack made a point of reaching across religious, racial and ethnic lines. As a regent, he put a high priority on getting the universities to reflect the state’s diverse population. When he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arizona, one of the biggest pleasures, he said, was to see the mix of students at graduation. As Jack observed, “States that are internationally competitive will be those that provide cordial environments for diverse populations and draw strength from their multi-cultural society.”

Mentor. Jack’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.

Historian. Arizona’s past fascinated Jack, including his roots in Prescott, and he was keenly aware of how today’s decisions resonate far into the future. He planned to write a history book. He never got the chance. But he became part of our history, helping mold the state and make it a better place. He left a legacy of service, tolerance and common sense that Arizonans should build on.

Jack Pfister and Babbitt