Deborah Ham's Unfinished Business

The battle against a mine loses its leader

Deborah Ham, the eccentric country lawyer who led an uphill legal battle to keep a copper mine out of Pinto Creek, a tiny forest stream just west of Globe, died suddenly of a stroke on May 13. She was 60 years old.

Around 7 o'clock in the evening, Ham met a friend at a coffee shop near her Globe office. Shortly after entering, she mentioned that she felt funny, and then collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital and died about an hour later.

In December, Ham filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service, asking for an injunction to keep the service from authorizing any work on the Carlota Mine. Cambior USA, the U.S. branch of a Canadian mining company, purchased the Carlota Mine in 1991 and announced its plans to dig a 300-acre pit in Pinto Creek and place a leach pad--an acid-tainted waste dump--in a nearby wash, both of which eventually empty into Roosevelt Lake.

A local group that calls itself Citizens for the Preservation of Powers Gulch and Pinto Creek approached Ham to give it legal counsel. With a single-mindedness that characterized her life, she took over leadership of the protest group and nearly neglected her private law practice. Her obsessive efforts did in fact help stall the mine project and earned her the enmity of the mining community in Miami and Globe.

And although Ham became well-versed in the environmental fallout of copper mining, she balked when her group was referred to as environmentalist. It was a "community group," she insisted.

Her death raises questions about who will pick up the legal case, now before Judge Roger Strand in federal court in Phoenix.

Ham had a dry and an endearing Yankee civility that could be companionable or caustic as needed. It sometimes took a beat to realize she was being sarcastic. But she never lost her temper or her nerve.

"We're shocked and saddened by her passing," says Jim Payne, a spokesman for the Tonto National Forest. "And although we had our differences, she was always professional and courteous, and she had our respect."

She was a fright to look at, tall and gaunt, with a face from another century: deep-set eyes that could have peered out from a daguerreotype of a frontier woman. She wore no makeup and refused to style her hair. She dressed in threadbare clothes, even in court, where she often carried a dog-eared copy of the Carlota Draft Environmental Impact Statement in the way that an itinerant preacher carries a Bible. She drove an old jalopy that looked as if it had been rescued from a demolition derby. And although her dusty office in town had computers and fax and copier machines, she would retreat with her dog to her ramshackle cabin on 10 acres of land folded into the Tonto National Forest. A mountain stream ran through the front yard, and as Ham's sister Phoebe says, "When you're sitting in the house, you can put your hand out the back window and touch the mountain." The cabin had no plumbing or central heat, and only in the last few years had Ham installed solar power; it did have a baby grand piano, which Ham had learned to play well during an earlier period of single-mindedness.

It seemed almost as if she had taken a monastic vow of poverty.
"All lawyers, when they are sworn in, before they start going to the 34th floor of big skyscrapers, have to promise that they will never reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, so help me God," says Ham's former partner and companion Peter Cahill. "That's what every lawyer has to say. And few of them remember it, and fewer still live it. Deborah lived it every day."

Deborah Ham was born in 1937, in Concord, Massachusetts, one of three daughters of a well-to-do family. Her father had been a newspaperman in Boston before opening an ad agency in Concord.

Her sister Phoebe, who still lives in Concord, feels that all three girls were a bit different. She reminds a caller that Concord is the home of Walden Pond, of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott.

"It just seems that we sort of imbibed something from that," Phoebe says.
Deborah went to prep school in Concord and then, in 1959, graduated magna cum laude from prestigious Bryn Mawr College. She taught English in an inner-city Boston high school for 10 years, and then at a lab school for troubled youths at Boston University.

But she also found herself caught up in the movement protesting the Vietnam War. While volunteering as a draft counselor, she got the notion that she should be an attorney.

And so in 1970, after a year off in which she rode a bicycle from Boston to Seattle, Ham enrolled in the New England School of Law in Boston. She graduated as the top woman in her class in 1974.

After graduation, Cahill and Ham moved to Tucson as volunteers for VISTA (which was sort of like a domestic version of the Peace Corps) to start up a consumer program at a legal-aid clinic. And when their year's service was up, they jointly applied for a job at the legal-aid society in Globe. Because there was only one job, they shared it. Some years later, Cahill was fired from the clinic, and Ham and the rest of the staff quit in protest.

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