Investor, Teacher, Caretaker, Spy
Chester, who says he once killed someone but can't remember why, has requested peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
The owner and operator of the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home honors Chester's request. Eighty-one-year-old Izora Hill, probably the state's oldest active proprietor of a fully licensed supervisory care home for the chronically mentally ill, whips jelly into a bowl of peanut butter.
Chester waits outside on the front porch of the flat, sand-colored building set in the creosote flats of Rainbow Valley, an isolated community some 35 miles west of Phoenix.
"The peanut butter sandwiches are my idea," Chester tells the other residents milling about the porch. "Good eats."
Like all of the 11 male residents at the group home, Chester lives in his own world, riddled with private challenges that not even Izora can begin to comprehend. Chester has to contend with a string inside his head, for instance, that prevents him from "bombing" people.
The kitchen of the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home is a clutter of old tables, paperwork, boxes of cereal, cookies, candy bars, fruit, coupons, two old sinks, ragged fly swatters, an ancient gas stove and four antique but functioning padlocked refrigerators.
Izora Hill carries the keys to the refrigerators, along with 37 other keys, on a large chain in her pocket. She knows exactly what each key unlocks--the austere dorm rooms with bunk beds, the cluttered closets, the clean but ramshackle bathrooms and five old sheds, which once housed migrants who worked in the cotton and citrus fields. Now, they are repositories for dry goods, extra clothes, business files and the accumulated junk of Izora's eight decades on Earth.
Except for her tendency not to wear dentures unless she's going to town or has visitors, Izora doesn't show her years. She's a small, thin, muscular woman who dresses in secondhand clothes--an obsession with thriftiness that is the most obvious indication she lived through the Great Depression. Today, she wears a beige shirt, black and white bell bottoms of '70s vintage and the white leather walking shoes that seem to be her only self-indulgence. On days she has guests, she's liable to change into her favorite cotton housecoat.
Her lightly tanned skin is not terribly wrinkled, considering her years in the sun, and her brown eyes can be positively impish behind the trifocals she wears even when she sleeps. She swears not infrequently and is apt to offer an off-color response about the most serious matter. When she's asked how she handles one very large resident who is prone to violent outbursts, she answers in deadpan: "Kick 'im in the privates." She has, of course, never done so.
Looking at Izora now, you can still see why she once danced every dance Saturday nights at the Riverside Ballroom. Her high cheekbones push out of her angular face. She's of African-American, Native American and Irish heritage--her maiden name is Callahan--and although she could pass for any of these races, she thinks of herself as a black woman.
Most of the residents at Izora's place appear to be in their 50s and 60s. Some have lived there for a decade or more. The state of Arizona pays Izora $470 monthly for each resident's room and board, she says, and even with her parsimonious bent, that's barely enough to make ends meet.
Most residents have come to the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home from other group homes in the Valley, where they had been disruptive, or preyed upon, or both. Or they arrive in the company of a parole officer after release from state prisons or county jails, where they served time for crimes--some minor, some very serious--directly related to their mental disabilities.
"You would be surprised at the people they lock up in the pen," says Izora Hill, loading up each plate with two sandwiches, a wedge of watermelon and chips.
Lunch is ready.
The men shuffle past a hallway table with potted plants growing out of string-bean cans, past a bouquet of red plastic tulips atop a Coke machine.
They stand before their assigned seats. Charlie, a thin, elegant man with neatly cut white hair who happens to be prone to occasional violent outbursts, mumbles a hasty blessing. Chairs scrape against the worn linoleum floor. The men concentrate on the food, eat, do not talk.
"Got to keep an eye on Joaquin," Izora says, "I don't want him throwing it all up like he did at Christmas, when he just ate and ate 'til he got sick. He just doesn't know when he's full, that's his problem."
When they finish their lunch, the men remain seated in their classroom-like orange metal chairs, which Izora bought for a few cents on the dollar from administrators of a soon-to-be-demolished Phoenix school.
Except for the TV in the living room, which is tuned to a soap opera, the room is silent.
"Come on, Chester," Izora calls from the kitchen.
"Good eats," says Chester, grinning.
One by one she calls each man, who gets up, deposits his plate and silverware in the kitchen. Only Joaquin hangs behind, scrutinizing his right thumb.
"Joaquin, I already called you once," says Izora.
It might seem unusual for an 81-year-old to be caretaker, cook, chauffeur, laundress, counselor and dishwasher to 11 men with serious mental disabilities. But this type of endeavor is not unusual for Izora Hill, who has through force of spirit transcended the overt racism and sexism that black women faced during the first half of the 20th century, and the less blatant discrimination that exists in Arizona today.
During her youth, many light-complexioned African-American women masqueraded as whites to avoid the hardships of segregation. Izora Hill chose the hard life of a black woman when she could have passed for white, and it never occurred to her to do otherwise. She learned early on to "raise sand," an expression she picked up as a child in Oklahoma that means letting people know, one way or another, when a situation is either stupid or unjust.
And she has raised sand frequently since she arrived in Phoenix in 1936. Rejected from nursing school because she was black, Izora became a maid to famous politicians, a real estate investor, an aspiring madam, a political candidate, a spy for the Democratic party, a mother of five children, a cook, a teacher and a janitor.
Finally, 25 years ago, in a time when banks did not gladly lend money to either African Americans or women, she paid cash to build the boarding home that had been her dream. There, she has cared for people who, by reason of their mental illnesses, suffered as much prejudice as she herself had endured.
Personal responsibility has become the trendy buzz phrase of racial politics in the 1990s. Increasingly, African-American leaders and the politicians who court them are stressing the importance of hard work and self-reliance to the improvement of the nation's black communities.
Izora Hill began taking full responsibility for her life and her family and her people before Bill Clinton or Louis Farrakhan outgrew their diapers.
"She had a dream," her son Richard says, "and she was a strong black woman. She was determined to get over and around her obstacles. And she did."
Izora Hill moved to Phoenix from her parents' farm near Boley, Oklahoma, in 1936, at the invitation of a sister who believed that Izora could attend nursing school at St. Joseph's Hospital.
"The only thing I wanted to do as a child was grow up and play the piano with a diamond ring on my finger and be a nurse," she recalls.
As she grew up, nursing outdistanced the piano. But she was often an uninterested student; her teachers told her she'd never amount to much unless she worked harder. She remembers telling them more than once: "You just wait and see."
She excelled at what she loved, especially the science courses that were the prerequisites for nursing school. After graduating from high school, she planned to attend an Alabama nursing school for black women. But it was the Great Depression, and her siblings convinced her that it would be cheaper to live in Phoenix with them.
Once she arrived, she learned that no nursing school in Phoenix would accept her. She was black.
Izora says she wasn't angry. But it becomes clear that on some level she must have been disappointed--and determined to work around the racism.
"When you are raised up with that kind of stuff, you get used to it," she says. "You get so used to it that you don't expect anything but that. You figure if you can't get one job, you get the next best thing."
The next best thing was day work--washing laundry on rub boards and pressing clothes with an iron set on the stove. There was no air conditioning, just a fan set above a pot of water in the middle of the kitchen.
Her first job was prophetic, now that she looks back on it. She cared for a schizophrenic who was locked upstairs in his mother's house, hidden from neighbors. When the mother entertained, it was Izora's job to keep the young man quiet. At night, the boy slept in a playpen because he tended to eat the cotton stuffing of his mattress.
She liked soothing the boy. Later, in the 1950s, she worked for 12 years at the Maricopa County Accommodation School and the Valley of the Sun School for children with mental disabilities. When children died, it was Izora's job to wash the corpses.
She worked several jobs at once. Day jobs. Night jobs. Weekend jobs. She was determined to make enough money never to be dependent on a man.
She did marry--twice--and had five children. Her first marriage, to Paul Raibon, broke up when her husband asked her to move to Florida, where wages were even lower than in Phoenix. She stayed and kept her jobs going. Raibon never really understood her decision but called her to his deathbed. Her second marriage, to the late Mack Hill, never officially ended, although the two lived separately, geographically and emotionally, for years.
She loves her five children, who pitch in to keep the boarding home running. "I wouldn't mess with you if I didn't love you," she tells her kids even today.
But she's not sure she really "love loved" her husbands. She didn't care when the relationships grew distant, and, she says, didn't care when her husbands went out with other women.
"They always said I was too independent," she says of both men.
Work consumed her. She socked her money away in real estate. She learned to cook, catering parties at night. Christmases, people booked her a year ahead. She'd pop her own dinner into the oven at home, race off to serve two dinners elsewhere, come home and pull out the kids' presents, which she'd bought on layaway at Woolworth's the previous July.
Although she worked around the impediments of racism, Izora Hill cannot, by any stretch, be called an "Aunt Tom."
She spent much of her life tending to the needs of Phoenix's upper-middle-class housewives, handwashing their underclothes, taking care of their children, serving their teas. They were dependent on her to free them of unpleasant household chores--and to keep the secrets that Izora learned simply by being in their houses.
She grew fond of some of these women, even naming her daughter Dovie after one employer.
If her employers were unintentionally condescending, she would forgive them in her own mind.
But if they were blatantly unkind or racist, Izora Hill would always extract a subtle revenge.
She would raise sand.
When she heard a racial slur at a party she had catered, before serving beverages, she made sure to drink out of each glass. Then she'd smile sweetly and bring the drinks in on a tray.
"Don't tell me you never would drink out of the same glass as a Negro," she would think to herself as she served the drinks.
She quit employers who treated her badly, waiting until they needed her most--the day before an important party, for instance. She left one employer because the lady of the house gave Izora only a cheese sandwich for lunch, even though her icebox was full of roast beef and ham.
"Give this cheese sandwich to your rats, they'll probably enjoy it better than I do," she recalls telling her employer as she collected her last wages.
Her favorite employer was Sidney P. Osborn, a Democrat who served as governor of Arizona from 1940 to 1948. She even named a son after the governor, whose wife couldn't have children of her own.
At the governor's weakest moments, when he'd come home at night fatigued and hungry, Izora sometimes tried to take advantage. She'd serve up a good meal, try to help him understand the needs of her people. But sometimes he didn't seem to comprehend her ideas.
She warned him, for example, not to destroy a neighborhood in South Phoenix to build the public housing project that now bears his name. She didn't believe in welfare and didn't think of blacks as victims.
"I told the governor not to put in that project down at Ninth Avenue and Tonto," she says. "There used to be a neighborhood there, and a theatre. But they bought everyone out and put those projects in there. He should have sent the people instead to Mobile, give them an acre to farm and two chickens."
Despite the close relationship Izora had with the Osborns, she was invisible to the Osborns' friends. Jack Williams, a former governor who was a close confidant of Osborn, says he has no idea Osborn had a maid. Lillian Stough, Osborn's assistant, says she never heard of Izora Hill.
This does not bother Izora. She doesn't remember Williams or Stough, either.
Phoenix's Republican power brokers often spoke openly about political strategies in front of Izora, the black woman who smiled and served them caviar canapes. Apparently, they did not suspect she was a devoted Democrat (she volunteered for 22 years as a precinct committeewoman, then served ten years as a state committeewoman). And, apparently, they thought she was too stupid to make sense of their conversations.
"I'd play Republican when I was out there in Paradise Valley," she says. "Then I'd go back and tell the Democrats what was what."
Izora's political spying spanned the 1940s and 1950s, when she did most of her domestic work; the party leaders to whom she fed the information are now dead, so verification of her stories is difficult. Still, she has stories. Her favorite spy tale, one she tells often, deals with a plot by Republican officials to move the Maricopa County Hospital to vacant property the county would buy from the GOP cronies.
At first, she says, the Democrats didn't believe her. Then Republicans began pushing a $10 million bond issue for a new county hospital.
Democrats dispatched their spy to more parties for further details. There were lots of details. And lots of cronies.
The flap that ensued lasted more than a decade and is well-documented in newspaper clippings. At one time, 19 landowners competed to sell properties for the new hospital site. The hospital was eventually built on state land.
There were times when being an invisible maid had its advantages. At other times, Izora preferred visibility and a place at the Democratic table.
She recalls that in the 1960s Charles Hardy--now a federal judge she calls "Charlie"--once ended a meeting of county Democrats so Izora could make a doctor's appointment. He reconvened the meeting when Izora returned.
When Izora learns that Hardy can only remember that she was a black woman active in the Democratic party, she seems stung. She is also somewhat perplexed that former governor Sam Goddard can't remember much about her. She carried his petitions around everywhere she went.
But former governor Rose Mofford remembers Izora Hill well. A hard party worker, Mofford recalls, always getting people to sign up to vote. Smart. Spoke her mind.
There is another prominent figure who has not forgotten Izora Hill.
His name is Cloves Campbell. At the time he clashed with Izora, he was the most powerful, visible African-American politician in Arizona.
A former public affairs executive with Arizona Public Service Company and the current publisher of the Arizona Informant newspaper, Campbell served in the Arizona House and Senate from 1962 until 1972. He was more than a little annoyed when the Democrats picked Izora as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He was so annoyed he led a walkout of nine black delegates at the state convention that preceded the Chicago event. He told reporters at the time that the delegate chosen by party leaders, Izora Hill, was not known by or acceptable to him.
He had not been asked to join the delegation, incidentally; today, he says he didn't particularly want to attend the event.
Animosity flared up again after Izora returned from the Chicago convention and decided to run against Campbell for the state Senate.
She let everyone know she didn't think Campbell helped black people. Back then, she called him a yes man for the utility that employed him.
The Campbell-Hill feud lives today.
"Cloves just cared about Arizona Public Service, Arizona Public Service," she says.
"She never did anything for the community," Campbell retorts. "All she did was have a bunch of kids."
To this day, Campbell suspects the Democrats paid Izora to run so she would split the black vote. He says his fellow party members didn't like him because he pointed out how the party had failed its black constituency.
"That's a bunch of baloney," says former county Democratic chairman John Carney, who recalls Izora as "one of the hardest working Democrats around."
Campbell won the race, then lost in 1972 to newcomer Alfredo Gutierrez.
Izora continued volunteering for the Democrats as a deputy registrar in Rainbow Valley until she was 79 years old. She debated taking on that task again after she saw Congressman J.D. Hayworth on television, whom she would like to see defeated. But she finally decided against taking on the registrar job because her kids tell her she's got to start slowing down.
When Izora Hill first visited Rainbow Valley in the 1930s, she had no intention of opening a home for the mentally ill.
She dreamed of building a whorehouse.
Back in those days, she says, houses of ill repute operated openly in Phoenix, and the cops just looked the other way.
Although she was never a prostitute, Izora recognized the success of such enterprises; the notion of becoming a madam appealed to her. She planned to buy some property near the Gila River, make an artificial lake for fishing, set up a barbecue, some cabins, a dance hall. She'd construct a road so customers could exit out the back way if their wives came looking.
Her plans were foiled in the 1940s, when the county sheriff started cracking down on hookers. She decided against the idea. She didn't buy her Rainbow Valley property until the 1960s, when she got the idea of running a group home.
The home has seen as many odd and dangerous characters as any whorehouse. But Izora doesn't see them as threatening.
Izora treats her charges more like illogical children than people with serious, often disturbing mental problems. She seems to have no fear of the men, even though she has counted rapists, murderers and child molesters among her residents.
Those who don't follow house rules--not making their beds, for instance--have their cigarettes taken away.
The few residents who have, through the years, attempted to act out sexually are isolated from the others until Izora gets a doctor to prescribe a drug she says reduces the sex drive. But mostly, she says, residents "have been without sex for so long they don't even think about it."
"These men," she says, "are harmless."
She believes her years of experience give her a better understanding of the chronically mentally ill than the parole officers and social workers who occasionally visit the home.
Although she regularly lashes social workers with her biting tongue, the state has reprimanded Izora only three times in the past 25 years. The deficiencies were minor--leaving burritos uncovered in the refrigerator, having dirty or torn furniture in the rec room.
Renz Jennings, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, recalls that when he was a state legislator in the late 1970s, he was invited by state officials to go on a "surprise visit" to a supervisory care home in his district.
"We were going on this trip with the sense we were going to bust somebody," he says.
When he arrived at the home, Jennings was surprised to find the owner was Izora Hill, whom he had known when she was a precinct committeewoman in Phoenix in the 1960s.
"There were alcoholics and mentally ill people walking around in this great setting, and the [state] people were saying the kitchen wasn't quite clean enough," he remembers. "What I saw was a great setup for these people who live in their own little worlds."
"These people felt part of something," he says. "Their lives had dignity. Even then, the place had a ramshackle quality to it, but it was humane. And it was sufficiently clean. I was impressed by this woman. She took a thankless job out in the middle of nowhere and made something out of it. She impressed me as a woman of substance.
"But the [state] people were concerned about the pigs and chickens running around."
Sunday afternoons, after Izora has done the lunch dishes and left them on the rack to dry, she leaves the residents in the care of her daughter and steals off to see her siblings, who gather at her sister Alice's house next door. Alice is 88 and still has a few hogs, although she's slowed down considerably from the days when she sold hundreds of pigs each year.
The property line between the two sisters is immediately clear. Although Izora's acreage is cluttered with junk, the junk is ordered into areas and piles.
Alice's junk is randomly strewn on her property, along with cans and other pieces of trash.
"Just a raggedy old house," says Alice, "but it suits me fine. I'm a junker." She is wearing a blue housecoat, no shoes. Like her kid sister Izora, it's hard to tell whether Alice is black, or Indian, or white.
Of Izora's nine brothers and sisters, only four survive. The siblings seem to resent Izora a bit, seem mildly jealous of her. Their parents indulged Izora most, Alice says, while the rest of them "had to work like mules."
Izora listens, looking amused, doesn't say anything.
Izora's sisters Margaret and Helen sit on one couch. Alice relaxes by the dining-room table. Their brother, Lawrence Callahan, sits opposite them.
"Oklahoma is OK-la-ho-ma, Oklahoma, OK," says Lawrence, who was once was a janitor for former senator Paul Fannin.
"Yeah, then why did you leave," retorts Margaret, pulling on a cold beer.
Later, when the others are gone, Izora and Alice, the closest sibs, talk about things that matter. Like real estate. Alice has nine parcels, including a nice property in Cave Creek.
Izora still owns her house in South Phoenix, which she purchased for $250 in 1938.
County records show she owns nine parcels of vacant land, mostly in western Maricopa County, in addition to the Rainbow Valley property. Her total real estate holdings were assessed last year at about $130,000.
Izora and Alice are waiting for the day the state builds a prison near Rainbow Valley; maybe that will drive up their property values a little more.
Of course, neither wants to sell.
Neither sister can think of anything she would like to purchase, what with all the used stuff both have picked up through the years.
Izora's children, now adults, say they've suggested she spend some money, maybe take a little trip somewhere. After all, she's worked so hard, for so long, at so many things.
Izora Hill finds the suggestion silly.
"Why would I want to go to another country? It's just another place, with the same situations.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.