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?