Steiger leaves friends with legendary memories
Candor, independence, quick wit, and an ability to look beyond partisan politics were among the qualities that local officials and family members recall about former U.S. Congressman and Prescott Mayor Sam Steiger, who died this week.
"He was a good example of a good, tough Prescottonian," said Daiton Rutkowski, a former Prescott mayor, who was friends with Steiger for years. "He never, ever backed away from an issue."
Rutkowski remembers how the experienced politician took him under his wing in the 1980s when Rutkowski entered the local political arena.
"He taught me everything I knew about running for office and politics," Rutkowski said, adding that Steiger's "candor, his honesty, and not pulling any punches" would be the main legacy of the storied politician.
Yavapai County Supervisor Carol Springer called Steiger "my best friend for well over 30 years," and said he grew up in New York City, spending his spare time in Central Park, where he could hang around the horses that drew the carriages downtown.
"That was the era of (movie stars) Tom Mix and Gene Autry, so he just fell in love with the idea of the horses and the West," she said.
He attended college in Colorado, and then after that, worked on a dude ranch in Wickenburg, Springer said, before marrying in Prescott.
Steiger moved into the political arena, and, Springer said, he told her at the time that when he won his state Senate seat, "you could put all the Republicans (in Arizona) in a phone booth and they'd fit."
She called him "a great entertainer," and said he could be ornery at times.
One of the most famous local stories about Steiger is his rebellious decision to re-paint the crosswalk between the courthouse plaza and Whiskey Row.
"One afternoon - and I recall this very clearly - Sam was having a drink or two with some of his friends on Whiskey Row, and decided that he would put that crosswalk back in," Springer recounted. "He went somewhere and got some paint, and put it back. Of course, that created a huge outcry. I believe he was arrested, and the case was dismissed."
But ADOT did restore the crosswalk, and it remains to this day.
Springer said sometimes the stories about Steiger were a bit ... inaccurate.
Like the one about him shooting the burros.
"He was driving down Highway 89 and he saw some (wild) burros harassing some kids waiting for a school bus," she said. "Wild burros can get kind of vicious. So he got out and couldn't shoo them away, so he ended up shooting
two of them.
"And so, the story has grown over the years to Sam just shooting the burros in the butt, and the part about protecting the kids got eliminated from the story," she said.
Current Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, who also knew Steiger for years, remembers him as "one of the most astute, bright, quick-witted people I knew. He never shied away from a comeback."
Kuykendall, who worked on Steiger's campaigns for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, recalls the experience as being entertaining.
"Sam was fun to be around, and a very bright guy," Kuykendall said.
On a local level, Kuykendall said the Whiskey Row crosswalk incident likely would leave the most lasting impression. But he noted that Steiger also was instrumental in the city's acquisition of the historic Elks Opera House, and helped to lay the groundwork for the city's purchase of the Big Chino Water Ranch.
"He had a very good sense and knew that water was going to be an important thing," Kuykendall said.
Former Mayor Rowle Simmons, who followed Steiger in the office, refers to Steiger as "without a doubt the most colorful mayor in the history of Prescott."
Simmons remembers Steiger as being a man who "didn't mince his words." At times, as a new mayor in the early 2000s, Simmons said he was on the "south end" of some of those words.
Simmons and others also noted that Steiger did not always use much tact when dealing with other area communities.
For example, Simmons remembers a League of Arizona Cities and Towns conference in Prescott in 2000, when a Payson official touted his hometown as the "home to the oldest continuous rodeo."
In defense of Prescott's motto as the home of the "World's Oldest Rodeo," Steiger disputed the Payson claim: "Messing around with a bunch of sheep at sundown is not a rodeo," he said.
The remark elicited laughter at the conference, but Simmons said Steiger later told him that he got hate mail from Payson residents for months afterwards.
Steiger's son Gail agrees that his father's candor was a hallmark of his personality. "I do remember that he would tell you what he thought - there was no filter there," Gail said Friday.
But Gail also remembers the heady experience of growing up with the famous Arizona politician. "We were just really lucky to know him and be in his orbit," Gail said Friday. "He was larger than life.
While living with his father for a time in Virginia, Gail said he got to take in some of the Washington D.C. life. "He introduced me to presidents (Gerald) Ford, (George H. W.) Bush, and (Ronald) Reagan," Gail said.
He also remembers that his father did not always take the predictable political route. The congressman met regularly with the rest of the Arizona delegation, Gail said, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Morris "Mo" Udall.
"(The delegation) used to meet once a month and sit down and talk about what was good for Arizona," Steiger said. "I don't think party affiliation was nearly as important to him as who you were and what you were trying to accomplish."
Through the years, Gail said his father left his mark on important matters such as the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the Navajo-Hopi dispute. But for his son, Steiger's main legacy may be in the fights he waged for individuals.
"When I think of him, it's not so much about a specific piece of legislation," Gail said. "But for a big chunk of my 30s and 40s, people would come up to me and say, 'your dad went to bat for me.' He liked helping people - even when there wasn't any good reason to do it."
Over the past decade, Gail said his father dealt valiantly with the effects of two strokes, which took away his ability to speak.
"It was tough - here's a guy who made his living talking, and all of a sudden, he couldn't talk," Gail said. "But he just 'cowboyed up,' and he really did the best he could."
For years, for instance, the family would hear that Steiger had used his electric scooter to travel to far-flung parts of town. "We would hear that someone saw him going down Willow Lake Road toward Watson Lake, or on Iron Springs Road," Gail said.
Rutkowski says Steiger's absence over the past decade has been palpable. "He's been missed for a long time," Rutkowski said. "And he left a pretty dang strong memory."