Ernest McFarland spent six decades in public service, shaping landmark legislation like the G.I. Bill and Central Arizona Project. A new memorial celebrates his legacy.

The Importance of Ernest

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: October 2016
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Achieving the prestigious Triple Crown in baseball or horse racing is rare. Its political equivalent – rising to the top of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government – is virtually unheard of. But this triad was accomplished by one gifted Arizonan.

Ernest W. “Mac” McFarland’s public service spanned more than six decades. He served as U.S. Senator (1941-1953), Senate majority leader (1951-1953), governor (1955-1959) and Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court (1968). McFarland, a Democrat, accomplished this unparalleled feat with his sterling reputation intact. “Pretty much everyone on both sides of the aisle liked him, even if they disagreed with him,” historian Vincent Murray says. “He was noted by his colleagues as being courteous, fair and impartial, and for his spirit of cooperation.”

Before McFarland realized his political success, however, he lived a Horatio Alger-like tale, overcoming humble origins, a near-fatal illness and life-shattering tragedies.
The man who would later rub shoulders with world leaders had an Abe Lincoln-like distinction of being born in a one-room log cabin in Oklahoma in 1894. McFarland’s hardscrabble adolescence included working long hours on his family’s farm. After high school, he earned a teaching certificate and taught in a one-room schoolhouse before graduating from the University of Oklahoma.

McFarland joined the Navy during World War I and almost died of pneumonia  contracted at the Great Lakes Naval School near Chicago. The experience of spending almost 11 months in the sick bay made a lasting impression. “I think his post-war struggles, when he barely made it out alive and lacked veterans’ benefits, shaped his attitude toward helping returning servicemen during World War II,” says Southwest historian Jack August.

McFarland moved to Arizona after his discharge but temporarily left to attend law school at Stanford University. Following graduation, McFarland’s political career took off in 1924 when he was elected Pinal County Attorney. However, his subsequent marriage to Clare Collins, a fellow Stanford student, ended in tragedy. The couple lost successive infant children to illness and his wife, who suffered from depression, died in 1930 of post-birth complications from their stillborn third child. “I don’t know how many people could recover from such personal events,” reflects Lewis. “Somehow Mac did and came back to achieve great things in his political life.”

Murray sees this tragedy as the turning point in McFarland’s life. “I think what drove McFarland was when his early success was derailed. His efforts were no longer just about him, but what he could do for his community, his state and his country.”
After his family’s death, McFarland returned to practicing law. His clients included Winnie Ruth Judd, who had been convicted, under questionable circumstances, of killing her two roommates and transporting their bodies in trunks on a train to Los Angeles. McFarland’s impassioned insanity defense spared the life of the “Trunk Murderess.”

McFarland returned to the political arena in 1934, when he was elected Pinal County Superior Court Judge. In 1939, he married teacher Edna Smith, with whom he had a daughter, Jewell. The following year, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
His sharp mind and work ethic, fueled by a daily dose of 20 cups of black coffee, inspired the label “prime presidential material” by Esquire magazine in 1942. “According to his staff, he’d be at the office until late in the evening, long after the 9-to-5 people had gone home,” Murray says. McFarland became known in 1944 as the “Father of the G.I. Bill,” helping to write the momentous legislation that provides monetary and education assistance to returning servicemen.  

McFarland became Senate majority leader in 1951 and tapped Lyndon B. Johnson for his Senate whip, feeling the Texan had presidential potential. McFarland lost his Senate seat the next year to Barry Goldwater in a tight race during a Republican landslide, but was elected Arizona governor in 1954 and easily re-elected in 1956. He created the Arizona State Parks system, but his biggest accomplishment was changing litigators and strategy in Arizona’s successful court case against California over water rights to the Colorado River. “It changed the course of history, dramatically altering the future demographics of the Southwest,” August says. “As the sitting governor, standing in as a lawyer – was unprecedented and spoke to McFarland’s legal acumen.”

How do you create a memorial for a man who didn’t want one?
Craft the monument so it’s as much about his vision of improving
the nation as it is about him. That’s the theme of the “Ernest W.
McFarland and the American Dream” memorial at Wesley Bolin
Memorial Plaza at the state Capitol complex in Downtown Phoenix.

The McFarland memorial is one of the park’s rare tributes that
focuses on optimism for the future rather than on past sacrifices.
“The physical elements of the memorial symbolize dreams,
personal growth, opportunities and service to others,” says Don
Ryden, the monument’s architect.

The memorial features 22 panels highlighting McFarland’s life
of service. He is represented on a metal plaque as a dependable
workhorse, accomplishing tasks like securing water for the arid
state, a feat symbolized by an adjacent well. Conceived by
McFarland’s grandchildren, the privately funded memorial was
dedicated in 2015. “I think Mac would be proud of the message
the memorial makes,” says Vince Murray, historian for the project.
“The American Dream is about being all that you have the
potential to be, and what you do with that potential.”

Arizona Capitol Museum administrator Dorie Hanson says that
on October 7 and 8, the museum will feature a pop-up exhibit
that will be a “shout-out to Mac and his accomplishments.”

In a 1958 Senate rematch, McFarland lost to Goldwater by a larger margin, capturing only 44 percent of the vote. Although McFarland said little about the race immediately afterward, years later he said, “Some things are worse than losing an election.”

Afterward, McFarland continued operating KTVK, Phoenix’s third television station, which he’d founded in 1955, and practiced law. McFarland’s family fondly recalls enjoying ice cream together while their grandfather scrutinized the courtroom proceedings in his favorite TV drama, Perry Mason.

In 1965, at age 70, McFarland was elected to the Arizona Supreme Court and served until 1971, including one year as Chief Justice of the Court. His output of more than 300 opinions included upholding the decision to allow Ernesto Miranda’s confession to be admitted as evidence in his trial, which the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned, resulting in the “Miranda warning” of a person’s rights at the time of arrest.

Upon his retirement in 1971, McFarland purchased the soon-to-be-demolished Pinal County Courthouse built in Florence in 1878. He transferred the deed to the State Parks and established a trust fund for its reconstruction. The building reopened in 1979 as McFarland State Park and commemorated his legacy.

When McFarland died at age 89 in 1984, the Phoenix Gazette declared, “There will be few like Old Mac. Arizona is indeed fortunate he came this way. He gave the state much more than he ever took from it.”

Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble concurs. “Arizona has been blessed with some of our politicians being ‘giants’ in the nation’s 20th-century history, but none were superior to Ernest McFarland.”

“A lot of the people we currently elect to office are Kardashian politicians; they serve their egos and not the public good,” Murray says. “Mac was a true public servant; he worked for the people.”

Praise for McFarland even came from his archrival Barry Goldwater, who said Arizona was a much better place because of him. “I voted for Mac once, as a Republican, and I would have voted for him again, but it would have meant voting against me.”