Staff from the Past

Staff from the Past

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: March 2016
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Embarking on its 50th year, PHOENIX magazine catches up with some of the erstwhile editors, writers and creatives who defined our magazine through the decades.

Jana Bommersbach
Columnist, 1993-2010
As a reporter and columnist for PHOENIX magazine, Jana Bommersbach won awards for challenging injustice and championing the maligned. She’s continuing that crusade with a triple-serving of books peppered with crime and calumny.

Her debut historical novel, Cattle Kate (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014), sets the record straight regarding Ella Watson, the only woman ever hanged as a cattle rustler. For 100 years, history branded the gutsy homesteader as a thief and a whore. But it was all a heap of horse manure shoveled up by cattle-baron neighbors who wanted to steal her land. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that history needed to be fixed,” says Bommersbach, who fell in love with historical fiction as she scoured Wyoming’s archives to uncover the truth.

She wasn’t initially as enamored with the story of Debra Milke, the Phoenix woman who spent 23 years on death row for soliciting the murder of her 4-year-old son. Bommersbach assumed Milke was guilty until the Ninth Circuit Court threw out the conviction in 2013. When she read the court’s brief, she found “enormous numbers of facts that just shred this case,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing story of injustice. There were times I would just bawl.” Bommersbach’s book – the result of extensive research including dozens of interviews with Milke – will be released in Germany this spring. When it finds an American publisher, she says, readers will know the true motives that led to Christopher Milke’s death.

Bommersbach’s first fictionalized novel, Funeral Hotdish, popped out of Poisoned Pen Press’ oven in February 2016. The recipe is complex: Start with the real-life goulash served at her mother’s church in North Dakota. Add a feisty investigative reporter. Season with stories Bommersbach wrote for PHOENIX magazine about “Sammy The Bull” Gravano and Joe Arpaio. And steep it all in the search for justice. Though her heroine’s name and experiences mirror her own, Jana Bommersbach says Joya Bonner is “younger, thinner and has more sex than me.” But both women are passionate about pursuing truth and correcting injustice.

These themes will likely flavor Bommersbach’s future books, from a second batch in the Funeral Hotdish series to a historical novel that exposes an infamous piece of Arizona’s history. “It just seems to me,” she says, “that I should use my talents for something good.”

Bommersbach during her PM columnist days.
The writer today, pictured at her home with a stack of her true- and almost-true-crime novels.

Doug MacEachern
Photographer/Editorial assistant, Assistant editor, Associate editor, 1980-1983
The three years Doug MacEachern worked at PHOENIX magazine nearly ended his career. Having moved to Phoenix in 1980 to “chase a dame” (now his wife), the Detroit native kicked off his first job in journalism by landing himself in court when an attorney attempted to subpoena his interview notes from a profile about another lawyer. Fortunately for him – and PHOENIX magazine – the judge threw out the case.

Out of the First Amendment frying pan, into the faux pas fire: Writing about Itzhak Perlman’s upcoming performance with the Phoenix Symphony, MacEachern ended his paean to the violinist with a wisecracking coda. “Because I wanted to be a smart ass,” he says, “and because at the time I am a cultural philistine, I write, ‘Oh, sure, but can he dance?’”

While the magazine was at the presses, MacEachern was at a party, glancing at 60 Minutes on the TV. “I remember this vividly,” he recalls, “because it was a moment when my career could have ended, and maybe should have.” The program showed Itzhak Perlman hobbling into a room on crutches. “Skiing accident?” MacEachern mused, before his soul faceplanted as the host explained Perlman was paralyzed by childhood polio.

“PHOENIX magazine [was] swamped with indignant calls and letters – people demanding the head of that monstrous person that would make fun of Itzhak Perlman’s infirmity,” he says. The magazine’s publisher, Kenneth Welch – a board member of the Phoenix Symphony – “was staring down the gun barrel of his own posse.” But when MacEachern explained his ignorant innocence, Welch bit the bullet and didn’t fire him.

Perlman-gate followed MacEachern with the relentlessness of Poe’s raven as he moved to Phoenix New Times, the Mesa Tribune, and the Arizona Republic, where he became a controversial conservative columnist. Even in 2015, his shade-throwers were still resurrecting the shadow of the Itzhak Insult. The hate mail was “a badge of honor,” says MacEachern, who in person is much more amiable and moderate than his articles imply.

His life changed in October 2015. Two days after MacEachern’s father died, the Republic’s parent company offered him an early buyout as part of their notorious annual layoffs. In no condition to make a heart-wrenching decision, he took the buyout, ending 16 years on the editorial board. “I had the best job in the world,” he says. “I’ve been agonizing for two months now whether this was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I think it may be... But you can’t go back.”

Now, MacEachern is looking for new work commentating on politics and public policy.

The columnist as a cocksure young editor in 1983.
MacEachern at Urban Beans in Phoenix.

Ashlea Deahl
Managing editor, Editor-in-chief, 2005-2011
Though it wasn’t her official title, Ashlea Deahl could have been named PHOENIX magazine’s foodie-in-chief. If you needed a recipe for vegetarian posole, or were on a quest for the city’s tastiest kale salad, or craved freshly foraged prickly pear fruit, you knew who to call. Now the epicure has found two jobs that suit her like chocolate and lavender: writing for Whole Foods and co-owning a food truck.

Based in Austin, Texas, she manages internal communications for Whole Foods’ 90,000 employees worldwide, working on everything from newsletters about the company’s nonprofit foundations to a new mobile app. “I was really attracted to Whole Foods because I am really passionate about nutrition and wellness,” she says. “And with everything else they’re doing with the nonprofits, it makes me feel really good to work there, like I’m part of something bigger.”

In 2012, she and her husband, Benjamin, launched Guac N Roll out of an avocado-green truck topped with a giant mohawk made of pool noodles. The vegetarian menu features rock-themed riffs on guacamole like Guac The Casbah (with hummus, cucumbers, raisins, sesame seeds and mint), plus tamales, hazelnut horchata and that famous posole. “It caught on really quickly and spread by word of mouth,” says Ashlea, who took her husband’s last name, Miller. “People go nuts over guacamole.”

Especially when it has actual nuts in it, she confides.

In addition to hiking and swimming, she volunteers at an animal shelter and recently organized a group to volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas. They’re forming a welcome committee to set up refugees’ apartments, take them to appointments, and help them acclimate to their new lives in Texas.

Continuing the foodie theme, she’s freelancing for Eating Well and Clean Eating magazines, as well as cooking and tending her edible garden. This spring, she’ll take a certification class to learn how to make chocolate from cocoa beans. “Chocolate has been my latest passion project,” Miller says. “A far-off dream of mine is to have a chocolate and tea shop.”

We look forward to her tenure as chocolatier-in-chief.

Ashlea Deahl in 2003 as a PM freelancer before joining the staff.
The health-food pro with her mom and guac truck in Texas.

Jeff Burger
Managing editor, Editor, 1980-1984
Since leaving PHOENIX magazine, Jeff Burger has edited books on Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and John Lennon; led a magazine to several national awards; and gotten “fired” from an interview with Donald Trump. He always did bring a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to his work.

As a young journalist, the New Yorker freelanced largely about music, interviewing a 24-year-old Springsteen and amassing a collection of 10,000 vinyl albums. After following his girlfriend to Arizona, he shook things up at PHOENIX magazine. He profiled an ex-prostitute and brought an armed guard into the office for an interview with the head of Arizona’s Ku Klux Klan. Along with his girlfriend-turned-wife, he “started doing honest restaurant reviews where we said negative things about restaurants if they weren’t any good, [and] we didn’t mince words,” Burger says.

When the new editorial director pushed for lighter fare, Burger handed in his resignation. Following the dissolution of his marriage and the next magazine he edited, he moved back east. He worked at Medical Economics and Mutual Funds magazines before piloting Business Jet Traveler. As the current editor, he’s profiled private fliers including Donald Trump, who also expected Burger to keep things light. “He thought the whole interview was going to be an opportunity to talk about how great his new jet was,” he recalls. “I started asking him about politics and health care and running for president. He said, ‘I don’t like the tone of these questions,’ and after about five minutes he hung up on me.” Burger wrote the story anyway.

He also edited three hefty anthologies of interviews and encounters with musical gods: Springsteen on Springsteen, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen and Lennon on Lennon, which will debut this fall. Though he could retire from the now award-winning Business Jet Traveler, “I’m having too much fun,” he says. Ever since PHOENIX magazine, he’s loved working with a team of good journalists. He’s also found happiness in a 22-year marriage to his second wife – a puppeteer and preschool director – and with their two children. Next, he might write more books or travel and spend time with people he loves. “Life is short, and I just want to do things I enjoy,” he says. Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Burger at the helm of PHOENIX in 1982
Burger with his wife, Madeleine, in France, 2009

Carrie Sears Bell
Editorial assistant, Assistant editor, Associate editor, 1981-1985
Over the last several years, intrepid journalist Carrie Sears Bell has seen the depths of a breast cancer diagnosis and the heights of Mts. Kilimanjaro, Whitney and Rainier. Though certainly not as challenging, her time at PHOENIX magazine did serve up some surreal and memorable moments.

In 1982, the then-recent college graduate profiled Barry Goldwater, who served her iced tea in his living room. She body-doubled for a prostitute who refused to be photographed for an article. She rode a flatulent mule through the Grand Canyon. And she road-tripped around the state to write the Great Weekends column, which perfectly suited the inveterate traveler.

On their honeymoon, she and her husband climbed Mauna Kea, the highest peak in Hawaii. Since then, the couple has hiked the tallest mountains in 49 states, even learning mountaineering skills like rope traveling on glaciers. When she was pregnant, they ascended the country’s lowest highest peaks, including the absolute lowest: Britton Hill in Florida, a 345-foot “pile of nothing.”

Following her stint at PHOENIX, Bell worked for the short-lived Arizona Monthly, then became managing editor at America West magazine. She left the job to have her two children but still freelanced, even when that meant conducting a phone interview with a CEO while her 3-year-old banged on the door, screaming “Mommy!”

Then, in 2011, she found a lump near her armpit. After an initial misdiagnosis, doctors discovered it was a virulent breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and reconstructive surgery. Now a four-year survivor, the Scottsdale resident has written a book about her experience, Grit and Grace, all proceeds of which go to cancer charities.

Overcoming the disease has changed her for the better. “I’m in the moment more,” says Bell, wearing a necklace that reads Choose Joy. “I don’t leave things unsaid. I’m fully engaged with the person I’m with. Every day I’m alive I’m alive.”

Now seizing the day, she’s finishing a mystery novel she started writing before her diagnosis. She and her husband hiked Mount Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This summer they’ll amble the Painter’s Way in Germany. She recently completed her 16th rim-to-rim-to-rim trek of the Grand Canyon. She’s Secretary of the Western U.S. division of Woman Within, an empowerment group that helped her overcome her grief and anxiety about her disease.

“[Having cancer] gave me a different perspective about what’s important in life,” she says. “Don’t waste time on anger or holding grudges or feeling bad about the past. Make the most of the present time. Find the joy.”

Bell during her tenure as PHOENIX editor in the 1980s
Bell in a recent photo atop Piestewa Peak

Win Holden
Publisher, 1990-1999
Win Holden never intended to be a de facto trauma surgeon for Arizona’s ailing magazines, but that’s essentially how it turned out. Flatlining ad sales, severe subscriber loss – he could help turn around almost any problem. Unless it involved a goat.

In 1990, Holden was between jobs after  his employer – an ad agency – folded. The COO of MAC America Communications, which owned PHOENIX magazine at the time, swooped in to offer the former journalism major a position as publisher. But, Holden says, there was a catch: “[The magazine] was hemorrhaging red ink.”

So Holden brought in a new sales department that combined promotional forces with MAC’s other brands – KEZ, KNIX and Channels 3 and 61. He recruited dining editor Nikki Buchanan and columnist Jana Bommersbach because “we needed an iconoclast – a stick-it-in-your-ear kind of voice for the magazine.” The editorial team increased the focus on service journalism and launched the Top Doctors issue.

By 1999, the magazine was no longer on life support. But the owners, seeing more money in TV, decided to sell their other holdings. Holden was soon offered a job as publisher of Arizona Highways, and once again, there was a problem: “Highways was hemorrhaging money,” Holden says of the state-owned publication. “It was losing subscribers at a massive clip. About everything that could go wrong was going wrong.”

Holden slowly outsourced the customer service program and helped increase the retail presence with books, calendars and license plates. The magazine partnered with Delstar, an airport gift shop company, to run a successful Arizona Highways store in Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4. When the opportunity arose to bid for a Terminal 3 store, Delstar’s owner thought it would give them an edge to incorporate an element of wildlife into the bidding presentation. So she brought a goat into the hotel ballroom.

Ten minutes into the presentation, “the goat let loose a stream of BBs,” Holden says. “After that, it decided it would be a really good idea to urinate, too. So this jet stream comes pouring out of this goat.”

And that’s why there’s no Arizona Highways gift shop in Terminal 3.

Today, Arizona Highways is on solid financial footing, and Holden serves Arizona in numerous other ways. He’s Life Director of the Fiesta Bowl and is on the boards of numerous organizations. “This place has been so good to us,” he says. “There’s got to be a way that you can give back when you’ve been as blessed as we’ve been.”

Holden’s publicity photo as PHOENIX publisher in the 1990s.
The magazine man in his current office at Arizona Highways.


50th Anniversary Countdown
Our golden anniversary self-fête will culminate in the May issue with an epic year-by-year overview of Greater Phoenix since 1966.