August's Light: Arizona Historian Jack August Dies, but His Passion for History and His Fellow Man Shines On
Fife Symington, Arizona’s 19th governor, speculates that his friend, the historian Jack August Jr., was two-thirds of the way through a book about Symington’s life when August died January 20 at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix at the age of 63.
August had been hospitalized with an illness about a week prior and eventually succumbed to organ failure.
“He was into every aspect of my life,” Symington explains. “He’s such a unique person. It would be very, very difficult for anyone to kind of pick it up and keep going. I’m really going to miss him.”
Symington and August had embarked on the project about three years ago, after August finally convinced him to go forward with it.
August, an expert on the politics of water, was an acclaimed author who has co-written books about former Arizona Governor Raul Castro, former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, and the pioneer family of John Ruddle Norton, III, among others.
But Symington was skeptical, even resisted the project at first. August persisted, though, and Symington found his boundless enthusiasm for history infectious.
When August unearthed some unusual fact about Symington’s past in the governor’s papers or trove of family photographs and videos, the professor would contact Symington with an incredulous inquiry.
“I’d get a text or a call from him, and he’d say, ‘Did you really have a spider monkey that lived in your bathroom?’” Symington said. “And I’d figure he’d seen the picture of my monkey, Lulu.”
Symington kept the spider monkey as a pet when he was a boy growing up in Lutherville, Maryland. Lulu cohabited with Symington’s pet alligator, Alley, in Symington’s bathroom, where Alley would end up in the bathtub, eying Lulu hungrily as the monkey chattered and screeched.
It was the sort of thing that August, who loved to laugh and tell stories, would fixate on.
Sure, there was the serious stuff of history, which August also reveled in, such as Symington’s trial and conviction while governor for bank fraud — later overturned by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after which Symington’s longtime friend, President Bill Clinton, pardoned him before the latter left office — or Symington’s signing of influential legislation establishing Arizona’s Water Bank Authority as a state agency.
Another revelation for August was Symington’s boyhood friendship with cult film director John Waters, responsible for such outre gems as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs.
August and transgressive film director John Waters, at a book signing for the latter in December.
Courtesy of the family of Jack August Jr.
Both boys lived in Lutherville and attended a private elementary school together. Symington even became Waters’ assistant puppeteer in the future director’s puppet shows. August reunited them via phone for an interview.
The professor also helped Symington rescue his long-lost papers and memorabilia from a vast storage locker on East Thomas Road, where the two men were forced to use a bolt cutter on a padlock to gain entry.
In addition, Symington turned over to August an old Louis Vuitton cargo truck filled with letters belonging to his mother. As Symington’s mother hailed from the family of 19th-century steel baron Henry Clay Frick, they are of inestimable value as source material for historians on events such as the bombing of London during WWII and the sinking of the Titanic.
Because of August’s influence as Symington’s biographer and August’s position as the Arizona Capitol Museum’s Historian and Director of Institutional Advancement, both Symington’s papers and his mother's letters are part of the state library’s collection.
It’s one of August’s many accomplishments as a historian, on par with his seminal, Pulitzer-nominated book Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest, published in 1999, which established August as a savant on water issues.
And when your metier is H20 in a state known for its scarcity, you become very much in demand, whether you’re an expert witness for Arizona cities in lawsuits regarding water rights or you’re sought out by powerful men for your knowledge of the subject. It is one reason why August, who got his undergraduate degree in history from his beloved Yale University, his master’s from the University of Arizona, and his Ph.D from the University of Mexico, attained the kind of influence that most academics only dream about.
But the good professor — whose death now is mourned by Arizona’s political elite, from Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan to Phoenix’s Democratic Mayor Greg Stanton — was at heart a Phoenix boy, who never lost the common touch, and was as much at home with paupers as with princes.
I know because I drank with him on many occasions in downtown bars such as Seamus McCaffrey’s and Chambers on First, where he would be as interested in the political gossip we would exchange as the latest, often ribald adventures of the local barflies whom he befriended.
“Jack could speak the Ivy League lingo and he could speak to the homeless person on the street with the same intellect and compassion,” remembers Phoenix attorney Richard Gaxiola, our mutual friend and companion on many late-night peregrinations.
Similarly, DeConcini, with whom August co-wrote the Democrat’s memoir, Senator Dennis DeConcini: From the Center of the Aisle, recalls that August never forgot his modest beginnings.
“He was somebody that was never taken by himself,” DeConcini says. “I saw him in so many venues, and he never felt like he was superior to anybody.”
The eldest of five children, his parents, Jack Sr. and Theresa, both worked as teachers. August’s father, who passed away many years ago, taught physical education and instilled in his son of a love of swimming and diving.
August was a letterman at Central High School, where he won state championships, and he continued as a swimmer on a full scholarship to Yale, according to his mother, a retired teacher and administrator in the Phoenix Union High School District, who pioneered efforts to teach English as a second language to immigrant kids from Vietnam and Mexico.
August (right) in his office with Symington (foreground) and former state Senate President Steve Pierce.
Naturally, she is proud of what her son achieved and the many books he’s written, though she remembers his mischievous side as a young scamp, throwing oranges at cars with his pals or being cornered in a tree when the family’s bull (August’s dad was a lover of animals) ran after him.
Talking to her recently at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, where a mass will be held for her son this Saturday, it suddenly all made sense. August’s mother is 83 and lively. Devoted to education, to children, and to those less fortunate, she always seems to be ready with a joke or a funny story.
Like the one she tells about her late husband’s remains.
“I had my husband cremated,” she tells me. “I had him in a box. I have two fireplaces in my house, one where the kids watched TV and whatnot, a TV room, and we’d have him there in front of the fireplace, and they’d say, ‘You got Jack in the box there, mom.’ I said, ‘Be quiet. It’s your dad.’”
It’s the sort of story Jack might have told. He was like a character out of novel, both Falstaffian and brilliant, a roly-poly bon vivant on one hand, with a personal bottle of choice tequila installed at his favorite watering holes, and a man of great depth and wisdom, who knew the importance of life and of enjoying it, who loved his wife Kathy, their home in Prescott, their children and grandchildren, and their many family and friends. In them, and in his books, his light shines on.
A mass for Jack August Jr. will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 28, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 4715 North Central Avenue.
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