In the Arizona State University’s Special Collections in 1983, I pored over the Carl Hayden Papers, a treasure trove of 19th-and 20th-century Arizona political, economic and cultural history.
Several files had the curious name “Evo DeConcini,” and I wondered about his connections to Hayden and the state Democratic Party.
Hands clad in white acid-free archival gloves, I pored over correspondence stretching from the early 1930s to the late 1960s.
Political gossip, news about fundraising, gentle advice and personal greetings formed the sum and substance of it.
I marveled at Hayden’s handwritten responses, a testament to Evo’s influence. Most correspondence from Evo was handwritten; “Dear Carl,” the missives invariably began, ending “Yours, as ever, Evo.”
As co-author of a book with former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, I asked him and other family members, including his energetic and intellectual brother Dino, about the origin of the name “Evo.”
Family e-mails bounced from coast to coast as the theories narrowed. The answer is in the biography of French singer Yves Montand, who was born in Italy and whose birth name was Ivo Livi. Ivo, an uncommon first name in Italy, appealed to the singer’s father, who wanted his son to be a lawyer.
St. Yves, the lawyer for the poor from Brittany, is the saint of the defensors of the Justs (he was counsel for the poor people, for which he was canonized in 1347) and the French version of Ivo. The distinctive name Evo likely had its roots in the ecclesiastical realm.
To the point, Evo Anton DeConcini was a powerhouse, political insider, attorney and judge of the first order, and an economic innovator.
He was born on March 25, 1901, in Iron Mountain, Mich., where parents Giuseppe “Little Joe” and Ida, who had emigrated from Italy, owned a restaurant, saloon and hotel.
Evo grew up on the “North Side” of the railroad tracks, where Italians, Irish, and French immigrants began the process of Americanization.
Michigan went dry in 1917, two years before Prohibition, and Iron Mountain was the largest town in the Upper Peninsula.
Nearby Wisconsin, with its beer-loving Germans and other immigrants, refused to go dry.
So Little Joe sold his saloon in Iron Mountain, moved to Florence, the nearest town in Wisconsin, and bought the biggest and best saloon in town.
For two years, every Italian miner, Scandinavian lumberjack and anyone else who wanted a legal drink in a convivial atmosphere headed to Little Joe’s.
Evo recalled that his father saved more than $10,000 in that period – a small fortune then.
Evo was a natural entrepreneur, starting with a shoeshine business at age 9. With the money he earned, he bought his own clothes.
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 – Little Joe was stricken – prompted the family to look for a more healthful environment.
On Thanksgiving 1920, they settled on Tucson as their new home. Three months later, however, Evo, who had enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, received a telegram: “Prepare for the worst.”
His father, Little Joe, had been killed and his mother injured in an automobile accident on the Nogales-Tucson road in February 1921.
Evo’s father had purchased three Tucson properties: the Goldring Apartments at 502 S. Fifth Ave., the American Hotel at Toole and Pennington and a vacant lot next to that hotel.
With that inheritance, Evo DeConcini, at 19, became the family breadwinner, supporting his mother and older sister Alice.
He commenced a remarkable economic, political and legal ascent in the relatively new state of Arizona.
For the next 10 years, Evo oversaw a variety of enterprises. At one point, he sold the hotel and moved to Los Angeles to enter the Cactus Candy business, but the business foundered and he went broke.
Fortunately for Evo, the buyer of the Tucson hotel also went under, and Evo took back the property and began to recoup his losses.
Property acquisition occupied most of his time. With a $3,000 loan from his mother, for example, he bought a 40-acre tract on East Broadway and developed the Country Club Heights subdivision.
In 1932, he completed his law degree at the University of Arizona and married Ora Webster, from Thatcher.
They had had four children: Dino, Dennis, Danielle and David. All grew up in Tucson, and each has made significant contributions.
Early in his career, Evo developed a sense of public service, something he preached to his children. Dinner discussions often centered on the political events of the day, and from the 1930s onward he devoted a significant amount of time to politics and public service.
Various Catholic and humanitarian organizations in Tucson owed their existence to his generosity, and he served as a Pima County judge, Arizona attorney general, state Supreme Court justice, head of the Arizona Democratic Party, member of the Arizona Colorado River Commission, and member of the Arizona Board of Regents.
Hayden and Ernest McFarland sought his counsel, and he remained active in statewide politics throughout his life.
Evo’s imprint may be most evident in Tucson and southern Arizona: the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse in downtown Tucson is perhaps the most fitting testament.
Arizona has benefited not only from his private sector developments in Tucson, but also from his public service and political engagement.
His legacy of stewardship, through the continued good works of his children and grandchildren, lives on in Arizona.
Jack L. August Jr., Ph.D., is executive director of the Barry Goldwater Center for the Southwest and visiting scholar in legal history at Snell and Wilmer LLP. He is a former Fulbright Scholar, research fellow through the National Endowment for the Humanities and Pulitzer Prize nominee for his book, “Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest.”