Imagine if someone got the go-ahead to carve the likenesses of four great Arizonans into Camelback Mountain?
Who would they pick?
Who would YOU pick?
Admittedly, it’s a fanciful premise.
Goofy, even – and probably not even feasible, given how sacred the mountain has become to hikers, homeowners and naturalists. But sometimes, great rewards can be extracted from the serious treatment of silly notions. So we posed the question to our readers, and asked them for suggestions to populate our theoretical Arizona Mount Rushmore. Then we enlisted PHOENIX magazine’s top history writer, Douglas C. Towne, to weigh the qualifications of our 15 favorite candidates, from the state’s founding governor to a certain mascara-smeared heavy metal legend.
He earned the nickname “The Greatest” as the only three-time World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion. Meanwhile, his outspoken, trash-talking personality captivated fans worldwide, as evidenced by his 40-odd appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But the charismatic fighter who “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee” transcended his sport to become a beloved cultural icon promoting civil rights and peace, and his gift for poetry and love of the arts led to Grammy Awards nominations as a spoken-word artist. (One of his few defeats was his longshot plan to reunite the Beatles in 1976.) Later, as a Paradise Valley retiree fighting Parkinson’s disease, Ali remained in the public eye as the main draw at Celebrity Fight Night, long the Valley’s premier see-and-be-seen charity gala. He died in 2016. The only chink in the champ’s armor as an all-time great Arizonan: the fact that he didn’t become a full-time resident until 2005, long after his athletic heyday. His home state of Kentucky will always have a stronger claim.
No one had to tell this social activist that the life of a farm worker was tough. The Yuma, Arizona, native attended 38 different schools before the eighth grade as his migrant farm family followed the harvest, moving to California at age 10. In becoming perhaps America’s best-known and most effectual modern labor leader, Chavez co-founded what is now the United Farm Workers of America in 1962, which continues to lobby for agricultural workers. The Mexican-American labor leader emphasized Herculean, non-violent protests that transfixed the nation, including leading supporters on a 280-mile walk from Delano to Sacramento, California, in 1966 to support better wages and working conditions. Chavez’s movement occasionally brought him back to Arizona, where his legendary rallying cry, “Sí, se puede,” meaning “Yes, we can,” originated at South Phoenix’s Santa Rita Center during his 24-day hunger strike to protest legislation impacting farm workers in 1972. Chavez’s selfless fasting impacted his health, and while awaiting to testify in a court case, he died at a friend’s house in San Luis, Arizona, in 1993. The labor leader’s local impact is memorialized by a library, park, and plaza named after him in Phoenix.
There’s an air of mystery about this legendary Chiricahua Apache leader – including the location of his burial after his passing in 1874. But there’s no doubt he was a fierce warrior and advocate for Native American agency and self-determination. Cochise rose to prominence in the Apache nation after Mexican soldiers killed his father in battle. Later, the U.S. Army falsely accused him of kidnapping, and the resulting chaos led to 11 years of brutal conflict with the Chiricahua Apaches. Finally, in 1872, a treaty was negotiated that created a Chiricahua homeland in southeastern Arizona. “Hereafter, the white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace,” Cochise reportedly said. But two years after his death, conflict again erupted, and the U.S. abolished the Chiricahua Reservation.
Sandra Day O’Connor
The rough work of riding horses, roping cattle and repairing barbed-wire fences as a kid on the remote Lazy B Ranch in eastern Arizona proved excellent preparation for O’Connor’s later battles in legal and political circles. Despite graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School in 1952, O’Connor struggled to find employment because of her gender, first working as a volunteer legal clerk to get her foot in the door. A Republican, she entered politics and became the first woman to serve as Majority Leader in the Arizona Senate, setting the table for her signature accomplishment. In 1981, the U.S. Senate confirmed O’Connor as the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, where she long served as an independent-minded swing vote, including in Bush v. Gore, 2000, which stopped the Florida presidential recount. Routinely cited as one of the world’s most powerful women, O’Connor retired in 2006 but remains the preeminent glass-ceiling shatterer in Arizona – and, perhaps, American – history.
When water comes out of the tap in the Valley or Tucson, one person to whom you can silently utter a prayer is Hayden, a seven-term Senator who spent a whopping 56 years (1912-1969) representing Arizona in Washington, D.C. One of the Democrat’s most significant accomplishments was the quixotic dream of bringing Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to bathrooms in Sunnyslope via a 336-mile aqueduct that flowed uphill. Hayden’s legendary knack for bringing home the bacon to his constituents inspired this pronouncement from Barry Goldwater: “If you can get Carl behind a bill, [then] you’re halfway home.” The reserved, unassuming legislator started public life in a very different role, serving as Maricopa County sheriff in 1907. Hayden typically carried an unloaded gun, preferring negotiation over conflict. Because of his longevity, TIME magazine called Hayden the “last link between the new frontier and the real one” in 1962. He passed in 1972, having twice been second in the presidential line of succession and setting a record as the longest-serving member of Congress – broken by Robert Byrd of West Virginia in 2009.
Arizona has been blessed with an exceptional bench of standout professional athletes – Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, Randy Johnson – but none can boast this future Hall of Famer’s sterling all-Arizona résumé of accomplishment. Before quietly retiring – did he technically retire? – before the 2021 NFL season, Fitzgerald was as comfortable conducting The Phoenix Symphony in a recital of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he was hauling in passes for the Arizona Cardinals. Gravitating to the gridiron as a kid, the prodigy wide receiver volunteered as a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings and starred at the University of Pittsburgh before the Red Birds snapped him up with the third pick in the 2004 NFL draft. Eleven Pro Bowl selections in 17 seasons followed, but his impact off the field was equally sensational. He won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2016 and was so beloved as a standup citizen and positive-minded champion of cancer patients that many pundits have forwarded his name as a possible future governor or Senate candidate. For the time being, the 39-year-old seems happy indulging his love of foreign travel and volunteerism.
George W. P. Hunt
When Arizona was granted statehood in 1912, the Democrat from Globe – who waited tables as a young man before presiding over the state’s constitutional convention – treated the governorship as his personal office. Hunt, who called himself the “Old Walrus” because of his portly physique and handlebar mustache, was elected as Arizona’s chief executive in seven of the state’s initial 10 contests back when the governorship was a two-year term. During a lull in Hunt’s reign in Arizona, he eyed a U.S. Senate seat held by a fellow Democrat, who asked President Woodrow Wilson to appoint Hunt to a distant diplomatic position to preclude a primary challenge. Wilson pointed to Siam (now Thailand) and asked, “Would this be far enough?” Hunt died in 1934, but maintains a stately presence at Hunt’s Tomb, the white pyramid atop a hill in Phoenix’s Papago Park, where he is interred.
The Texas-bred musician didn’t waste his good fortune – or his years as a transplant Arizonan – after fortuitously giving up his seat to the Big Bopper in the famously ill-fated plane chartered by Buddy Holly in 1959. Having narrowly averted an early demise in an Iowa cornfield, Jennings moved to Arizona in 1961 and became a fixture at JD’s nightclub in Tempe fronting his own band, The Waylors, and honing the distinctive sound that came to be known as outlaw country music. Disdaining Nashville’s trappings, Jennings later formed the super group, The Highwaymen, with friends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Jennings, who was married to country singer Jessi Colter, died in 2002. His adoring fans still leave unopened whiskey bottles and bags of Baken-Ets Hot ’N Spicy Flavored Fried Pork Rinds at his grave at the Mesa Cemetery.
Arizona’s “Maverick” senator earned his nickname by not buckling to his North Vietnamese captors or fellow Republicans. The brash naval aviator, who famously – and meaninglessly, as it turned out – graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, spent more than five years as a POW in a brutal Vietnamese prison nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” before returning home in 1973. McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, which led to presidential runs in 2000 and 2008. Whether reforming campaign finance, taking on special-interest groups, or defending his 2008 presidential opponent Barack Obama as “a decent family man” just as modern political discourse was taking an ugly turn, McCain spoke his mind while working across the aisle. His independence was still apparent, even after being diagnosed with brain cancer, with his famous “thumbs-down” vote on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. He died in 2018.
Ernest W. McFarland
Achieving the prestigious Triple Crown is a once-in-a-generation feat in both baseball and horse racing. Its political equivalent, rising to the top of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, is even more improbable. But it was precisely the hat trick accomplished by McFarland, who served as U.S. Senator (1941-1953), including Senate majority leader (1951-1953); Arizona governor (1955-1959); and Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court (1968) within a single career. The Democrat, fueled by a daily dose of 20 cups of coffee, shaped landmark legislation, including the G.I. Bill and the Central Arizona Project. His archrival, Barry Goldwater, said Arizona was much better 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.” During his whirlwind political career, McFarland still found time to dabble in business and launched Phoenix’s third TV station in 1955, which still broadcasts on Channel 3. He died in 1984.
Frank Lloyd Wright
The nation’s most famous architect disdained the hallmarks of his profession, calling the prestigious American Institute of Architects “a harbor of refuge for the incompetent.” Wright was haughty, tangled in messy personal chaos, and teetered on financial collapse, but still managed to design more than 1,000 awe-inspiring structures before his death in 1959. His “organic architecture” emphasized harmony with the landscape, but he also embraced bombast, once proposing a mile-high building in Illinois that would accommodate 100,000 people across 528 floors. Wright was a classic Arizona snowbird before there was a such a term, launching Taliesin West, his beloved winter home, studio and mentee campus, in 1932 as a seasonal bookend to the original Taliesin in Wisconsin. His Arizona legacy includes 11 buildings, and he’s also linked to the Arizona Biltmore, which licensed his trademarked concrete block designs.
The scion of a Phoenix department store family, Goldwater is the man who pushed Arizona into America’s political consciousness. Hell-bent on creating a national conservative political revolution, Goldwater won the Republican nomination for U.S. president in 1964 before losing to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide. Even in defeat, he proved victorious – later, Goldwater was dubbed “the most consequential loser of the 20th century” for influencing the course of GOP politics in the 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, Goldwater called the four years he was out of political office after his loss “the most satisfying years I have had as an adult.” Besides his five terms as U.S. Senator, the quintessential Arizonan loved photographing landscapes and Native Americans, talking on a ham radio, piloting sleek military jets as a major general in the Air Force Reserve, and tinkering with gadgets. His home had an electronically operated flagpole that raised Old Glory when the morning sun hit it. Goldwater had no problem being candid, and when Congressional Republicans collectively moved to pull their support for President Richard Nixon in 1974, they picked the big Arizonan to deliver the bad news. He died in 1998.
From “School’s Out” to Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding at the Celebrity Theatre, the one-time Vincent Furnier is arguably Arizona’s foremost start-to-finish celebrity. Want to ponder something funny? Consider how the pride of Cortez High School evolved from a 1970s “shock rock” pariah into the Valley’s most beloved man about town. Whether swinging his mashie niblick on the golf course or hosting concerts for charity, the sociable Cooper actually is a Mr. Nice Guy. Cooper, née Furnier, started his musical journey at age 16, forming a band called The Spiders with four Cortez classmates – each, like Cooper, members of the cross country team. The band morphed into Alice Cooper, a name they reportedly conjured using an Ouija board, and adopted over-the-top, gruesome stage antics which so horrified Britons that parliament tried to halt performances in the United Kingdom. The group disbanded in 1975, with Furnier – a devout Christian, ironically – adopting the band’s name and lending his goth alter ego to everything from The Muppet Show to Wayne’s World. A syndicated radio DJ and sometime restaurateur, Cooper was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Perhaps the most mythical of the Arizona heroes on our list, the Arizona Cardinal and Arizona State University Sun Devil football star leaves a legacy equally informed by courage, anti-materialism and tragedy. In 2002, Tillman – then the starting strong safety for the Cardinals – remarkably turned down a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the U.S. Rangers with his brother, Kevin Tillman, becoming the de facto face of the nation’s “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks. Tillman, a complex individual, was hailed as a war hero for his enlistment, but had a more nuanced view of patriotism. He wanted to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, but was reportedly disillusioned with the apocryphal search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, dying in the latter by friendly fire in 2004, in an incident clouded by misinformation. His legacy continues to reverberate in the Valley through the Pat Tillman Foundation, which supports veterans and is partially funded by the ever-popular Pat’s Run, a 4.2-mile-long course inspired by the jersey number Tillman wore for the Sun Devils. Through it all, tales of his unique and ascetic nature endure like fables from the Iliad. As a rookie, Tillman arrived at Cardinals training camp on a bicycle amidst a parking lot of luxury cars. Later, unfazed by NFL success, he drove his favorite beat-up pickup truck to ASU while pursuing a graduate degree in history. He was an original.
Coiffed in her signature white-haired beehive, Arizona’s first female governor deftly used wit and empathy to bring stability to a state reeling in chaos. Ascending to the office after scandal-plagued Evan Mecham had been impeached in 1988, the Democrat was the matronly, generous presence Arizona needed. “She was both popular and warm – already an Arizona icon when she became governor,” Athia Hardt, her former press secretary, says. “People trusted her to do what was best for them and the state.” Formerly the first baseman for the Arizona Cantaloupe Queens softball team, the Globe native used her competitive instincts to crack a few glass ceilings during her 51-year run in state government. Entering politics as a secretary in 1940, “Auntie Rose” became Secretary of State by an appointment in 1977 and was reelected three times. Mofford, whose home number remained in the telephone directory for her constituents throughout her political career, did not seek the governorship when her term expired in 1990. She continued aiding the community and turning heads with her hairstyle until she passed in 2016.
Winnowing our 15 Arizona Rushmore candidates down to a final four was a challenge. To start the process, PHOENIX magazine unilaterally plucked Mr. Arizona himself, Barry Goldwater, from the crowd. We love the joie de vivre the dashing statesman showed for his native state, whether piloting a screaming Air Force jet overhead or being one of the first 100 river-runners to journey from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Lake Mead. “If I ever had a mistress, it would be the Grand Canyon,” he often said. Our reader poll influenced the other three selections. Alice Cooper gets the nod, having filled venues worldwide by melding macabre-themed theater with heavy metal and transforming the concert experience as we know it. Unlike other rock stars raised here – Stevie Nicks, for instance – he also remained an Arizonan for the entire run. Just as integral to the state’s celebrity mythology is Pat Tillman, a complicated but bona fide American hero who made the ultimate sacrifice while eschewing the trappings of stardom and the military’s attempts to politicize him. Finally, Rose Mofford and Sandra Day O’Connor were neck and neck in the polling for the final selection, but we tilted to the former for two reasons. First, she balances out the list politically opposite GOP legend Goldwater. And second: How epic does that beehive look carved into Camelback?