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Sun, Jan. 26

Column: Prescott's grande dame has made this a 'culturally vibrant' community

The air was rarefied and electrified within the glittering Elks Opera House when the accolades came pouring forth Thursday evening in love and appreciation for the good works that Prescott's grande dame and living legend, Elisabeth Ruffner, has bestowed on the community over the years. It was a Niagara of descriptive noteworthiness that flowed from the mouths of well-wishers in recognition of the selfless and boundless energy she has exerted during her three-quarters of a century of residency.

No, her roots weren't in Arizona, but her "transplanting" from Ohio proved to be immensely fortuitous for Prescott, where she traveled in 1940 to marry Lester "Budge" Ruffner. Budge was a member of a pioneering family that settled in the Verde Valley in 1867 who was an author and historian in his own right, and he and Elisabeth teamed up to produce two daughters and a son who are helping to continue fueling the Ruffner legacy. And it was Marshall Trimble, Arizona's state historian, who introduced their daughter Melissa to Thursday's gathering by tongue-in-cheekily referring to her as "Prescott's professional streetwalker."

Yes, Melissa clarified, "I do tours" of the city for residents and visitors who are interested in its history. Not only that, but she also wowed audiences attending the popular Arizona Jamboree stage shows at the Opera House over a 14-year span by leading off each show with anecdotes and lore taken from the city's colorful past. During Thursday's tribute show she referred to her mom as a "drop-dead blonde from Cincinnati" (Elisabeth's "drop-deadedness" is confirmed by a 1940 photo in the printed program) and reminisced about an incident when she was a child of no more than three years of age when the two of them stood viewing the stately county courthouse. "Yes," she said dreamily, according to Melissa's recollection, "this is MY hometown!" Sorry about that, Cincy, but it has now morphed into EVERYBODY'S hometown!

An extended progeny produced by the union of Elisabeth and Budge comes in the form of their grandson, Paul Ruffner, a young man who is blind from birth but whose exceptionalness stands out by virtue of his having, in my opinion, the greatest vision and insightfulness of any blind person in existence. His part in the program was riveting, as he played three jazz numbers on his tenor saxophone, accompanied on the piano by Tres Ikner, that were flawless.

In addition to blowing those sweet sax sounds, though, he also "blew the whistle" on the only time that he ever heard Grandmom Elisabeth raise her voice. It happened during a drive when as a kid he and his sister were feuding in the back seat of the car. We all know how kids can be, of course. She: "He touched my arm!" Paul: "No I didn't, and I'll do it again if you aren't careful!" (Actually, Paul didn't say that he said that. I just made it up for dramatic effect.) "Finally, Elisabeth had had it up to here and yelled, 'If you two don't shut up I'm going to drive this car off a cliff!'" (They did ... and she didn't.)

The program - a heart-warmer of the first order - was chock-full of verbal tributes and musical selections commemorating that wondrously wonderful wonder woman who has done so much to make Prescott the pride of Arizona's north-central highlands. Just a few examples, as space permits:

• Layne Longfellow: "She's the matriarch of this community. Few people have left such footprints on the sands of Arizona."

• Brad Newman, who sang a "Lonesome Dove" tribute to her, complete with his own guitar and harmonica accompaniment: "We would not be in this room tonight (the Elks) were it not for Elisabeth."

• Sandy Moss: "She is a living legacy who took the mantle of the storied Ruffner family and added to it. Prescott would not be the culturally vibrant place it is without her countless contributions."

• Philip Dixon, accompanied on the piano by Chris Wuehrmann, who sang a spine-tingling "The Wind Beneath My Wings" while noting that Elisabeth had credited "the people who have helped me along the way" as the special "wind beneath her wings."

• And, capping off the program, Jonathan Best vocalized by inserting "Elisabeth" for "Georgia" in the familiar "Georgia On My Mind" standard, ending with a "God bless Elisabeth in Everybody's Hometown" reference while all the other well-wishers who had participated in the program gathered with him on stage.

It was a night to remember.

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