Preparations begin for Arizona's 2012 centennial birthday bash

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by Jana Bommersbach – Jun. 20, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

I was afraid I’d never be able to write this column.

I’ve been worried for years that I’d wake up the morning of Feb. 14, 2012, and have to sing “Happy Birthday” all by myself.

For seven years, I’ve been warning that Arizona was going to fall on her face when it came time to celebrate our statehood centennial in 2012 – the last of the 48 contiguous states and the last statehood birthday most of us will ever see, unless you’re around in 2059 to help Hawaii and Alaska party.

I’m not the only one who was scared this state wasn’t up to it, but now, I’m happy to report it appears that Arizona will indeed – despite our Legislature and johnny-come-lately efforts – mark our entry into the United States of America on Valentine’s Day of 2012.

This moment has special meaning for Arizona – now more than ever.

They sure didn’t want us. Washington saw the Arizona Territory as too “unlettered,” too illiterate, too lawless and, ironically, with too many Democrats for the Republican Congress!

Our Rough Riders even went to war hoping that would be a path to statehood – Prescott Mayor Bucky O’Neill gave his life in that effort and his tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery explains why: “Who would not die for a new star on the flag.”

But even that wasn’t enough. At one point, Congress said the only way we’d become a state is if we were melted into New Mexico in what they called “jointure” – an insulting idea that was eventually dropped. (Our neighbor celebrates its 47th state centennial on Jan. 6, 2012.)

Ironically, another Prescottonian helped save the day, and that was Sharlot Hall – the first female to ever hold office in Arizona, when she became territorial historian. Her impassioned writing about the virtues of Arizona helped Washington see the light.

But, in all, it took nearly a half-century before President William Howard Taft finally signed the papers on that Wednesday morning, launching a celebration that was something to behold.

“At 10:23 a.m. Washington time on St. Valentine’s Day, motion picture cameras whirred for the first time at an official Presidential ceremony,” notes “The Road to Statehood,” a special album published years ago by Arizona Highways magazine. “Abruptly, in Phoenix, a telegraph key clattered out the official message …” And then, literally, all hell broke loose:

• Bisbee set off a stack of 48 sticks of dynamite.

• Globe fired up a cannon that spoke 48 times.

• Tucson set off the waterworks siren while the University of Arizona ROTC cadets executed drills.

• Prescott asked Arizona-born boys and girls to help plant a native white oak on the Plaza, which today stands as the towering Statehood Tree.

• In Phoenix, Gov. George W.P. Hunt walked from downtown to the state Capitol, accompanied by virtually every organization and band in the city as well as “forty-eight maidens gowned in white and crowned in gold,” Arizona Highways reports. The planned 48-howitzer salute on the City Hall Plaza had to stop at 38 because the booms so rattled windows and unsettled horses.

And, oh yes, on that day, a “Master Cupid” carried a bow and quiver of arrows down the aisle at the wedding of Miss Hazel Goldberg and Joseph T. Melczer. It was the first public appearance of 3-year-old Master Barry Goldwater.

I envisioned our centennial as matching that enthusiasm, but it didn’t take long to realize I was one of, oh, say, five people in the state who seemed to care.

Communities getting busy

I really got bent out of shape in 2007 when Oklahoma made a pig of itself celebrating its centennial. I knew we had nothing to match their grand events – they created a state department to organize events, led two national parades and flooded the nation with their story. All Arizona had was a few thousand “matching dollars” from the Legislature and a handful of people trying to get the state moving.

Remember, that was before our economy went to hell in a handbasket; since then, the Legislature has taken back every cent it promised for the centennial.

So, here we are, less than 24 months out, and I expected the picture to be pretty bleak; but instead, I find communities all over this state are rising to the occasion and planning some pretty wonderful things.

A lot of that is due to Karen Churchard, who was hired by the Arizona Office of Tourism two years ago to get the centennial on track.

On her first day, she found there were a paltry 20 “Legacy Projects” in some degree of preparation around the state – projects that must be educational and lasting – and every one of them was locally driven.

Today, she can boast over 50 Legacy Projects under way: books are being written, music is being composed, monuments are being erected, students are being inspired to study Arizona history, and some parties – including a Fandango Arizona dance I originally suggested in 2003 – are on the schedule.

“I still think we can expect a lot,” Churchard tells me. “I’ve been giving presentations around the state since 2008, and I’m seeing enthusiasm wherever I go. People are stepping up. And communities are seeing an opportunity to tell their story. I tell people, ‘Think of what’s unique about your area.’ ”

Churchard knows she has to inspire private money and foundations and maybe get a national grant or two to pull off some of the events she hopes to see. “I’m still looking for sponsors,” she says, and if there ever were a time for the private sector to stand up and be counted, this is it!

‘The Arizona Story’

One piece of the many events planned that I find particularly fabulous is what the Arizona Historical Society has already done. It has written and printed one of the best history books you’ll ever read, called “The Arizona Story.” It’s designed as a fourth-grade textbook – that being the year kids learn about Arizona history – but anyone with any interest in this state will want a copy. It’s heavy on photos and drawings and clear explanations of what happened in this state, why, and who did what to whom.

I was blown away when I first saw it a year ago and have referenced it many times since. But it’s not just me. This book won the 2009 Award of Merit for Educational Programming Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. Wow. (One southern Arizona teacher loved it so much she wrote the historical society, “If this book were a movie, you would have won an Oscar.”)

Many schools have already adopted this book as an official textbook, but I hope it gets far greater distribution to others in the state who will find this a lasting treasure.

But besides these Legacy Projects, there also are several “signature projects” and “signature events” under way.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is booked for three shows in February 2012 – the first time this amazing choir has performed in Arizona in over 40 years.

Best of Arizona festivals

Prescott, Tucson and Phoenix – the three cities that have been the capital of this state – all are planning Best of Arizona festivals featuring arts and crafts and music. There’s a statewide motorcycle ride planned and a birthday dinner – as well as a breakfast that will celebrate all of Arizona’s centenarians. (Do you realize we have over 750 people over 100 years old in this state?)

Churchard notes Arizona already has several important existing events that will capitalize on the centennial, from Scottsdale’s Parada del Sol to the Navajo Nation Fair to the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott.

“I hope to get our national entertainers to perform,” she says, and when you start making the list of Arizona talent, it’s pretty breathtaking: Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Alice Cooper, Dierks Bentley, Wayne Newton, Jordin Sparks, David Spade, Steven Spielberg, Glen Campbell, Lynda Carter – and the list goes on.

There’s hope, led by architect Will Bruder and pushed by the Editorial Board of The Arizona Republic, to revive the old state Capitol and to make Wesley Bolin Plaza into a showcase, rather than a ragtag embarrassment. We’ve already started planting thousands of trees throughout Arizona and to install historic markers in every county.

After all that, there’s a big BUT. (You just knew there had to be one.) The one place that seems to be lagging behind everyone is – you guessed it – Phoenix, Churchard tells me.

So far, City Hall hasn’t even named a committee to gather ideas. Come on, guys, get going! Time is running out. How embarrassing if our capital city turns out to be the big dud on Statehood Day!

Anyone who wants to get involved or has a great project can e-mail Karen Churchard at kchurchard@azot .com.

Jana Bommersbach is a longtime Arizona journalist and award-winning columnist and author.

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