Acclaimed Arizona historian and author Jack L. August, Jr. died Friday afternoon at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix following a brief illness. He turned 63 January 7 of this year.
Well-known for his appearances on the Channel 8 news shows Horizon and Horizonte, August was a brilliant scholar, a proud graduate of Yale University, and an old-school, liberal Democrat, who befriended and was befriended by politicians on both the left and the right.
That bipartisanship extended to his work. Though August helped former Arizona Governor Raul Castro and ex-U.S. Senator from Arizona Dennis DeConcini — both Democrats — pen their memoirs, at the time of his death, he reportedly had been working on a book with former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, a Republican.
In 2016, Republican Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan appointed August to serve as historian and director of institutional advancement in the Division of Library, Archives, and Public Records, with an office in the Arizona Capitol Museum, housed in the state's old capitol building. It was a job he reveled in.
On learning of August's passing, Reagan issued the following statement:
"Dr. Jack was a tremendous person and amazing historian. I was honored he agreed to help us get the Arizona Capitol Museum going in the right direction, and I consider myself lucky to count him as a friend. Jack's skills, stories, and incredible mind will be greatly missed around the state, but his legacy in Arizona will endure for generations to come."
Phoenix's Democratic Mayor Greg Stanton also issued a statement on the news of August's death, saying that he was "heartbroken" by the loss.
"I’ve known Jack personally for the past 20 years and was privileged to call him a friend," Stanton said. "He loved this state with a passion and was truly the people’s historian. His meticulous research and gift for story-telling brought our state’s history to life in ways that have helped us better prepare for our future."
An expert on water rights in Arizona and other western states, August's 1999 book Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest is considered the seminal work on the subject. As a result, he often served as an expert witness in lawsuits involving disputed water rights.
Sometimes rumpled in appearance, he boasted a healthy sense of humor and the ability to rub shoulders with Arizona's movers and shakers, while doing the same with ordinary people in local watering holes, such as downtown Phoenix's Seamus McCaffrey's Irish Pub and Chambers on First, two of his favorite haunts.
An eclectic intellect, he had been working on a cover story for New Times about the childhood friendship between ex-Governor Symington and cult filmmaker John Waters, director of Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and Polyester. Last year, New Times awarded August "Best Historian," in part for his ability to bridge economic, political and cultural divides.
August is survived by his wife Kathy as well as many family and friends, myself being one of the latter. Kathy told me that the family will announce any plans for a service or memorial at a future date.
Smiling through her tears, she recalled that August would often tell folks that when he died, he wanted to be shot out of a cannon, not unlike James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original series of Star Trek, whose ashes were shot (briefly) into space.
Now all that's left is to find the professor a cannon.