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Community members reflect on legacy and impact of Jim Babbitt in Flagstaff

Climate Elders

Flagstaff rancher Jim Babbitt talks as one of four climate elders during a panel discussion at the Murdoch Community Center put on by the Northern Arizona Climate Change Alliance in this 2019 file photo.

Good-natured, humble and passionate were the descriptors that came up over and over again as local community members and friends reflected on last week’s loss of author and historian Jim Babbitt.

In the aftermath of Babbitt’s death on Nov. 15, community members from all corners of Flagstaff have shared memories of the man who helped shape Flagstaff and northern Arizona.

With a deep passion for local history, Babbitt’s wife of 48 years Helene Babbitt said he “always had a project going of some kind.”

Helene Babbitt said for a time, her husband was working to discover more about the historic Beale Wagon Trail and find certain landmarks along it.

“He drove around, trying to find points on the trail and he had a quest for this place called Anvil Rock. But it was his great frustration,” Helene Babbitt said, adding that often the whole family would be roped into the quest. “So everybody had to go with him on these trips to look for Anvil Rock.”

And it wasn’t just his family that Babbitt would involve in his adventures, said Ethan Aumack, executive director at the Grand Canyon Trust.

Babbitt sat on the Trust’s board for close to 30 years, and Aumack said he would lead Trust staff and trustees on “some of the gnarliest hikes and backpacking trips in and around the Grand Canyon.”

“He knew those places like the back of his hand. He would always wear blue jeans on those hikes and on those backpacking trips, and he always looked like he was just on a stroll around downtown Flagstaff,” Aumack said.

Aumack said to him, those blue jeans were a good example of a lack of pretentiousness and a humility that Babbitt had.

That trait was brought up often by friends and was apparent even when Babbitt was younger and attending Flagstaff High School in the mid-'60s, said Jeff and Janet Coker.

“[We were] both struck by his lack of both pretension and sense of entitlement. In retrospect he impressed us both with his humility, empathy and gentle spirit,” the two wrote in an email.

But several individuals said that humility didn’t stop Babbitt from fighting strongly for what he believed.

Aumack said Babbitt was a strong advocate for conservation issues across the Colorado Plateau and encouraged the Trust to begin working on Native American issues in addition to conservation. Aumack said Babbitt almost single handedly pushed the organization to purchase two ranches on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, helping to protect 850,000 acres in the area.

“He was a man of some contradictions in some senses; he was most often very quiet. But he could sometimes be very loud and forceful in his opinions, challenging norms and fighting for what he believed was right,” Aumack said.

Former Flagstaff Vice-Mayor Celia Barotz said that passion was not limited to the Colorado Plateau, but also for the preservation of Flagstaff’s character.

Barotz said she found Babbitt to be a kindred spirit in the realm of local politics when she served on the Flagstaff City Council, especially when it came to issues of development, an assertion supported by more letters to the editor in the Arizona Daily Sun through the years than can be counted.

Babbitt also helped start the group Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, donating the store room in the back of one of his stores to be used as the organization’s first office space, said Vice-Mayor Becky Daggett, who was F3 director at the time.

It was also at that time that Babbitt devised the popular “Don’t PHX FLG” bumper sticker, something Daggett said embodied his at times “mischievous” nature while still standing for his ideals.

“He grew up in this town and he just had so many memories of open space and seeing more deer and elk, and he was sad about all the building that he saw. So that was his little mischievous way to kind of point out to people that Flagstaff was changing,” Daggett said. “It didn't matter how old Jim grew, he still looked like a little boy when he found something that tickled him.”

But Babbitt also sought to shape the city in other ways, said Steve VanLandingham, who worked with Babbitt and the city in evolving downtown Flagstaff into what it is today.

At the time, VanLandingham was working to tear down several downtown buildings he had recently purchased, some from the Babbitt’s, in order to create what is now a downtown staple.

“There was a lot of controversy at the time,” VanLandingham said. “Jim Babbitt really jumped in and helped with that whole process to end up with what we now call Heritage Square. Jim was very instrumental in helping [with] all that.”

Part of that effort also involved the introduction of Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters into the old Babbitt Department Store Building downtown, said Babbitt’s Backcountry owner Keith Harris.

When Harris began working at the store at the age of 19, it was located in the Flagstaff Mall under the name “The Edge.”

Babbitt owned that store for close to 20 years before he sold it to Harris in 2011, and Harris said Babbitt really took him under his wing to teach him about the business in the years leading up to that.

“I just feel blessed to have been able to work with him; it was an awesome experience and I learned a lot from him from a business standpoint working under him for that long,” Harris said. “Nobody liked a good joke like Jim did, and boy, he could take one too. He could definitely laugh at himself.”

Harris said in one instance, Babbitt was crossing San Francisco Street, just leaving the Monte Vista and coming back to Backcountry Outfitters when he was suddenly hit by a small truck.

“Jim rolled over the hood and landed on his feet and just kept walking -- he never skipped a beat. There were a lot of jokes after that, like we bought Jim an orange vest after that so everyone could see him in the crosswalk,” Harris said. “Only Jim would roll off the hood, land on his feet and keep walking.”

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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