By: J. Charles Coughlin
Thirty-two years ago this week, I drove into town on Grand Avenue with all of the possessions I had in the world in the back of my 1985 stick shift Chevy Cavalier. Mom was on me about riding the clutch – even though she was 2,300 miles away in my home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan – my mom rode me.
I only had one family acquaintance in Phoenix: my sister’s best friend growing up had married Danny Zelisko, the owner of Evening Star Productions, and the most successful concert promoter in Arizona history. Throughout that month, the Zeliskos invited me to the Arizona State Fair, with backstage passes to see the Charlie Daniels Band, Howard Jones, Smokey Robinson and my favorite, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Life couldn’t have been better. (Thanks Danny, I’m calling next week to schedule our long overdue lunch or dinner.)
I came into the Valley on Grand Ave because the I-10 had not been completed, the deck park tunnel didn’t exist, nor did the 101, 202, or 303. There was no Valley Metro, the US-60 connecting Mesa to Phoenix was just under construction, and the Squaw Peak Parkway (now the AZ-51) was at the time, just a true parkway. Valley leaders had scheduled a vote in 1986 for a ½ cent freeway tax to build our Valley’s freeway system. The Phoenix Open was still hosted in alternating years at Phoenix Country Club and Arizona Country Club. Herb Drinkwater, the iconic Mayor of Scottsdale, and his council were working on plans for a new course in their city, which would host the tournament beginning in 1987. Today, the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale is the best attended tournament on the PGA thanks to the Thunderbirds, a group of volunteers who worked with Scottsdale to create that opportunity.
I didn’t have a single close friend who lived in Arizona, but I had met then-Congressman John McCain in Cleveland on a campaign I was working on there. I later interviewed with him and Jay Smith, his highly successful campaign consultant (who I believe he never lost an Arizona race), to be the campaign fundraiser for his first run for U.S. Senate in 1986.
McCain was aiming to fill the seat being vacated by the legendary Arizonan, the Hon. Barry Goldwater. Thankfully, Jay hired me and thus opened the door to a world of relationships that I could never have imagined. During that same campaign I met Doug Cole, who has worked with me at HighGround for what will soon be 20 years. I also met my lifelong friend Grant Woods on that campaign as well, and would go onto work for him as Attorney General. At the AG’s office, I met Patrick Cunningham, the Chief of the Environmental Division at the Attorney General’s office. Today, we are blessed to have Pat as our General Counsel here at HighGround.
I also met a developer by the name of Fife Symington while working for McCain. Fife hosted a Senatorial Salute featuring eight incumbent U.S. Senators who were in town at John Gardner’s Tennis Ranch (today’s Sanctuary in Paradise Valley). That night, McCain’s campaign hauled in an enormous sum of $150,000, innocent in retrospect. Another great night and another life long relationship – Fife would ask me to run his re-election campaign for Governor in 1994.
The fabric of social connections in Arizona is an amazing thing. Like most of our landscape, the Valley’s social structure was and still remains largely flat – a meritocracy, a philosophy that suggests that authority should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on talent. I am grateful for that and grateful to the many fine people who work with me here at HighGround and all of the other collaborative relationships we have had with clients, elected leaders and countless Arizonans over the years. And yes, that means you, Governor Jan Brewer!
The substantive point of this reminiscence is simple – life is about relationships. John McCain and the late Jay Smith provided me an opportunity to begin an unimaginably blessed life, intellectually stimulating, spiritually rewarding, and populated with a dense forest of rewarding relationships that shape the grateful life that I am living today.
So, as we head into the weekend, let’s all remember how blessed we are, despite our challenges and the setbacks and disappointments that crop up daily. If I could ask one thing, it would be this: let’s all say a least one prayer over the weekend for friends like John McCain, and so many others, who are battling cancer. Let’s remember all of them, as the temperatures cool, the winter lawns are planted and we look onto our next season in life.
Thanks John, for providing me such a great opportunity for a blessed life. Thanks to my mother for riding my clutch and my Dad for his unconditional love.
As the author George Saunders wrote, “Anything is possible, stay open, forever, so open it hurts and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end. Amen.”