At the 2004 launch party for my novel Dry Heat, I'm with Jack August, center, and his wife Kathy Flower August. Jack passed away on Friday.
When I was a popular columnist at the Arizona Republic, it felt as if everyone outside of the Kookocracy (I coined the term), including many of the most prominent people in Phoenix, became my friend. "I never thought I'd read this in the Republic!" they would say about my writing, truth-telling about the Ponzi-scheme economy, the crash to come, the lost beauty, policy blunders, and Phoenix's forgotten and ignored past. "Don't worry, you'll have a place with us" if you get fired, some promised. I was not fooled.
When the pressure became too much and the Republic kicked me out as a columnist, they almost all melted away. Instantly. Like drops of water on a high-summer sidewalk. I was not only dropped but shunned. Later, some would resurface if they needed something, but that's human nature not friendship. I can count the genuine friends who stuck with me on two hands. Jack August stuck. He was that kind of man. Crisis reveals character.
His death at age 63 is a staggering loss for Arizona, for all who knew him. He was a towering figure as a historian of a state that suppresses its past, where so many newcomers keep the home of their heart in the Midwest and crow, "There's no history here." He was an irreplaceable counterweight to these toxins. He was a mensch who gave full measure to the term "a gentleman and a scholar."
I first ran across Jack long before, in an appropriate way, pulling one of his books out of the shelves at Flagstaff's sadly lost McGaugh's bookstore and newsstand downtown. This was on a visit, showing my girlfriend my home state with no expectation I would ever live here again. A title caught my eye, Vision in the Desert, by Jack L. August Jr. The book chronicled Carl Hayden's leading role in the long fight for the Central Arizona Project. Susan bought it for me and I read it on the plane as we crossed the country.
My mother had spent a decade working on the Arizona v. California lawsuit and the CAP, mostly for the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission but also for the lead attorneys, Mark Wilmer and Charlie Reed. I knew my water history. One of my dreams was to write a history of Arizona's fight for the Colorado River, especially the outsized personalities, back stories, and intense days-and-nights of work fueled by uppers and booze as David took down Goliath. Vision was impressive and I wondered: Who is this Jack August?
By 2001, I was back in Phoenix, married to Susan, and living in a 1914 arts-and-crafts bungalow a block from where I grew up, by then called the Willo Historic District. Among the many who contacted me to speak to their clubs or classes, one immediately jogged my memory. Jack August, at the time teaching at NAU, wanted me to lecture his class in Prescott. I drove up with no small degree of trepidation. This was Jack August, Yale-trained historian and author of that book I loved.
He put me at ease immediately, the class went off wonderfully, and one of the greatest friendships of my life began. So much bound us together. We were part of a tight circle of natives to which I gave voice. We shared a love of history and Arizona. Our world views, sense of humor, and enjoyment of living were magically aligned. We joked about envying the other's life.
I had trained as a historian, thinking I would get my Ph.D. and escape journalism. He was one. As a journalist, I wrote history on its leading edge. As a scholar, Jack wrote the serious assessments, interpretations, and revisions that time provided. Jack's steadfast support of my work at the Republic, and later at Rogue Columnist, was invaluable. I can't count the number of important people I was introduced to by Jack. Later, he encouraged me to write A Brief History of Phoenix and was my most important peer reviewer. We both knew that history was potent, not boring, because lessons learned are essential to survival and truth is dangerous to bullies, hustlers, and tyrants.
Over the years, over so many meetings, lunches, dinners, drinks, and emails, we bucked each other up, inspired each other's work, traded information and sources, and had a grand time. We intended to get together next month, in fact. Jack and his wife Kathy were regulars at our legendary parties at the historic bungalow on Holly Street. Many of these were unusual in that they would bring together people from many fields and backgrounds who didn't know each other. But everybody, it seemed, bonded with Jack.
He had an appearance that was part Falstaff, part Wild West prospector, but even this surface was alive with more. His eyes glistened with intelligence. He could pivot between sympathetic listener and tossing the perfect bon mot into a conversation. Jack was brilliant. His mind was incisive, his bullshit detector infallible. Jack possessed the rare ability to get living historical figures talking about the most intimate details, along with the patience to spend hours in the scholar's solitary research through documents, diaries, letters, newspaper accounts. Sifting out rumor and legend, fraud and bias. "Hard labor makes royal roads," as Barzun and Graff teach. Every successful historian is a good detective.
But it can be a hard life, except for a privileged few. Plenty of promising Ph.D.s are teaching at community colleges in Lower Slobovia — or starving between their adjunct and Starbucks gigs. Jack also loved Arizona, which is inspiring but can be limiting professionally. He published and didn't perish, completing 10 books and many articles, so went on from NAU to faculty appointments at Arizona State and the University of Arizona. He became director of the Arizona Historical Foundation. When that closed, he became a scholar in residence at Snell and Wilmer. Last year, he became historian and director of Institutional Advancement at the Arizona Capitol Museum in the State Library.
The world of university presses is often maddening and oppressive. And New York publishers have no appetite for "regional" work on the critically important history of Arizona. This is a reality that all who seek to preserve and advance Arizona history face, especially beyond cowboys and Indians and gunfights. Jack took on work that in other hands would have been vanity projects, histories of Snell and Wilmer and the Herberger Theater, as well as co-authoring political autobiographies. In his hands, these works gained rigor and seriousness, becoming important contributions. Jack August never sold his integrity. His Dividing Western Waters, on Mark Wilmer, and Norton Trilogy, as well as Vision in the Desert are major accomplishments, essential for every Westerner's library.
Although a progressive and a Democrat, Jack had many friends who were Republicans. Secretary of State Michele Reagan appointed him to the state museum post (one he loved, being in the historic old territorial capitol building). He was close to the late Sam Steiger. Lately, he had become friends with former Republican Gov. Fife Symington, and was working through his papers in preparation of a biography. Everybody loved and admired Jack August, a man of substance, honor, and loyalty. You don't hear that phrase much today.
The loss is beyond counting. Beyond the pain to Kathy, his family, and friends, is what Arizona and the world won't get: the history he had yet to write. His most consequential work was yet to come. For example, he was sitting on the notes of extensive interviews of former Gov. Evan Mecham. Now more than ever, we need to understand more about this man and his era. Jack knew every dirty deed and noble feat in the building-the-transcontinental-railroad-meets-Mad-Men water history. He revealed some personal discoveries about my mother that astounded me (his word, too, about what he had discovered). Most of his critically important information about such pivotal figures as Roy Elson went with him. We writers have to make a living. We always hope there will be time for the great works we really want to write. Time doesn't always oblige.
Jack never stopped wanting to find the way to get me back to Arizona full-time. I'll always be grateful, but I knew it'd never be arranged. I had made too many powerful enemies with my history writing. I lacked his gift for remaining viable there, and so many other gifts, too. When word came to me almost two weeks ago that he had suddenly collapsed, then was on life support, an already dismal January fell dark. I kept it quiet, although I did ask people on Facebook — so unlike me! — to send healing prayers for a dear friend. My followers did so in abundance. Yet in this vale of tears prayers aren't always answered as we would wish...for now we see through a glass darkly.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Years ago, Jack had asked for my papers after I died. It was by far the best death threat among the many I received at the Republic. So I have been dutifully filling Hollinger boxes, as if I was anyone people would give a damn about. But Jack cared. And that made all the difference. So it was for all of us who loved him.