I wonder, exactly 10 years after his death, what he would make of today’s sign on Loop 101: “Scottsdale: Next 15 Exits.”
Were he alive today, the energetic promoter that was Herb Drinkwater might see that sign as confirmation of Scottsdale as a great destination for leisure, for commerce, for living he knew it to be.
To him, Scottsdale was the finest city in America. He said so over and over, more sincerely, it seemed, each time.
The beloved late former mayor, who died on this date in 1997 at 61, saw opportunity in places others didn’t. He used his considerable persuasive skills and genuine love for people as individuals, not as members of political factions.
Many were convinced that starting a business or a family here was just about the best experience there could be, and learned later that he was right.
The Mayo Clinic, the FBR Open golf tournament and so many other businesses and events landed in Scottsdale because he lured them here.
Scottsdale, of course, is still growing. My 2008 World Almanac lists Scottsdale as America’s 78th largest city, up from the 2003 edition’s listing of it as 86th. City statistics show the 1997 population was 182,260. Today it’s 241,220.
And as much as he contributed to Scottsdale’s success, Drinkwater was also a traditionalist and a preservationist.
The man usually seen in Western attire and whose belief in the simple virtues of charity and service often had him helping first responders at local traffic crashes and disasters, might see that freeway sign as meaning that big-city growth also means big-city problems.
In a 1994 book titled, “Scottsdale,” co-author Alan Korwin quoted the four-term mayor as observing that what his city had to offer was limited.
“We’ve been a victim of our own success. ... That’s what created growth. We’re a desirable place. I try to slow growth down,” Drinkwater told Korwin. “Quality of life is something that’s hard to protect when you have people moving in faster than you can handle their needs.”
And he knew that not everyone had his boundless optimism and selfless attitude toward others. Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, said that during his time in office, Drinkwater sensed the growing acrimony in city politics that he had a knack for quelling with charm and affirmation of others.
In the 1980s, he asked Allen to serve on the Planning Commission, a job that he touted as not taking much time at all. You’ll bring so much to it, she said he told her. You’ll just love it.
Allen said Thursday that the experience often was, to the contrary, time consuming and not much to love.
She said she remembered tough zoning decisions that often left disappointed people on one side or another. But she said she gained from the experience and didn’t hold it against Drinkwater for talking her into it.
“He would not like the kind of rancor that seems to be prevalent now with some members of the City Council,” Allen said. “Politics, at least on some levels, has become a blood sport and public policy is not the better for it. Herb loved this town and wanted only the best.”
I asked Korwin Thursday about his interview 13 years ago. He said that it benefited Drinkwater, who owned a liquor and cheese shop, to know how to run a business, which many politicians don’t know much about.
“In 16 years of his stewardship, the city prospered and achieved the highest quality of life that cities can attain,” Korwin said. “I wish I was half as nice as he was.”
Drinkwater told Korwin in 1994 that while “developers love Scottsdale,” he told city officials to “do what’s right for the city. I probably irritate one developer a day. We have to remember that not everyone can live here.”
Which is why those fortunate enough to live in Scottsdale should treat it as more of a privilege than we often let on.
It is a privilege, not as is often said, because of the many here who are rich, but because of the many who are just lucky, and who act on that feeling, publicly and often.
Drinkwater’s personal touch may be dismissed today as appropriate only for the smaller town Scottsdale once was. But why should growth exempt people from service to others?
For those who have come since his passing, there is a boulevard, a peak in the McDowell Mountains and several awards bearing his name.
And there’s a statue of him in front of City Hall with a plaque that has the longest inscription you’ll ever see. Read it and you’ll realize why.
Each will provide some idea of what he meant to us and who he was to us, what Allen called “the purest of hearts” whose like we will never see again.
Except, just perhaps, in our own lives, and in the vision of the glowing city he loved far more than we can ever know.