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Paul Watson lauded for 31 years of service to the White Mountains

“It’s not often you get to talk at your own funeral,” said an abashed Navajo County Economic and Workforce Development Director Paul Watson, pausing to let his voice settle. “But I have to say – he wasn’t that great a guy.”

His sometimes-tearful farewell came at the end of an hour of non-stop praise and funny stories, which dominated this week’s Navajo County Board of Supervisor’s meeting.

Watson has played a leading role in White Mountain government for the past 21 years. Prior to joining Navajo County in 2015, Watson served as town manager for Snowflake for 7 years, manager for the Town of Pinetop-Lakeside for 13 years, and finance director for the Town of Eagar for several years.

He plans to retire and devote himself to perfecting his golf game. But for the next six months he will continue to facilitate economic development in the county on a two-day-a-week contract.

The people he has worked with heaped praise on him – between wise-cracks about foot-races, golf mishaps and odd costumes he has donned over the decades.

Navajo County Manager Glenn Kephart commented, “it has been an honor to work with you as a partner and to learn from you.”

Hunter Moore, Gov. Doug Ducey’s policy advisor for natural resources  said, “Paul’s a tremendous man – a great father and a great husband. Not only has he affected me, but he has affected members of my family personally. He has helped to shape policy in this state.”

Chip Davis, representing Congressman Tom O’Halleran, said “he’s always looking for solutions, he’s always positive, he’s always trying to help the community.”

Supervisor Jesse Thompson said, “you keep on top of people and kept us motivated. I know you’re looking forward to golfing, but I know that your mind is going to continue on the things we’re doing here.”

Supervisor Steve Williams said for three decades Watson has championed economic development – always with the goal of providing jobs for people. “The ripple effect of your service is felt around the state. I’ve always felt like I could trust him – and that’s a big deal to trust people.”

He recalled a footrace around the parking lot between Watson and Supervisor Jason Whiting. “It was hard to watch,” he joked. “But I have always loved Paul’s sense of humor – and his sweet wife is every bit his equal.”

Supervisor Whiting had to stop repeatedly to let his own voice settle as he paid tribute. Whiting has worked with Watson for years during Whiting's service as Snowflake town manager and the chamber of commerce. “He was a real mentor to me and the mentorship turned into a real friendship when I lost my parents. He was my confidante. It took me a while to understand my role in my own family and as a man. I want to thank his family. I appreciate your letting Paul work with us so much.”

Supervisor Lee Jack said, “he makes you happy. You have a lot of charisma,” he added addressing Watson. “You might want to think about politics,” he concluded, drawing laughter from the crowded meeting room.

Board Chairman Dawnafe Whitesinger commented, “there are people we look up to … Paul is the kind of person that I would hope to be. His ability to have candid conversations. He truly thinks about service and not the polarization of who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Steve Brophy, president of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, offered an example of the effect Watson has had on the whole county, especially when it comes to saving jobs. He said when the Snowflake paper mill shut down, the railway that had served the mill also went bankrupt.

“It dawned on a number of us that this posed an existential threat” to the region’s economy – and the ability to ever rebuild the forest products industry so essential to restoring forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Watson threw himself into saving the railroad, serving on the board, finding state and federal grants and preventing its closure, making many trips to Washington DC to lobby for its survival.

“He didn’t do it for Aztec, he did it for the working people,” said Brophy.

The survival of the railroad has saved other businesses, generating hundreds of jobs. “Paul set the standard by which service should be measured,” said Brophy.

By the time Watson spoke, he was clearly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and appreciation.

He said it seems like every time he takes a new job, he’s faced with some major, job-destroying challenge – like the Rodeo Chedeski Fire and the closure of the Peabody Coal Mine. “We had to close the paper mill,” he recalls, “which created devastation for people in that community.”

He thought about that for a minute, then quipped, “I think I would warn anybody not to hire me – the odds are not good.”

However, he said in his long experience in the White Mountains, “the toughest times bring out the best in people. Through all those events, what I learned most is the value of people and the value of relationships. I truly believe I’ve been blessed to see the best of people. I need to thank my Heavenly Father for the blessings and the people he’s brought into my life – and foremost is my wife and her love and support for this goofball and for my family,” he said. “I will be forever grateful to have lived in the White Mountains and raised my family here.”

He said he has gained a special appreciation for people who work in county government, where state and federal restrictions and mandates can make the job frustrating. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many elected officials. It’s a thankless job. Unfortunately, ‘politician’ is a dirty word in our society – but it shouldn’t be. I truly appreciate the sacrifice of your talents and your time to your fellow citizens.

“And I’m truly grateful for this chance to talk at my own funeral. Maybe I’ll even get to talk at the next one,” he concluded – getting his final laugh of the day.


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Greer firefighters help save distraught man

GREER – Veteran firefighter of 25 years, Rob Irons, was named a 2019 Firefighter of the Year by United Fire last month for his part in saving a man who was on the edge of suicide.

But this was not just any man.

He was a brother firefighter from the Phoenix area who was camping in the White Mountains with his 5-year-old son.

Irons said the father and his son had been based near Big Lake for a few days when the man just showed up at the station in Greer with his son on June 5, while Greer firefighters were preparing their engines and other trucks for use.

“He just brought his son in that afternoon and said, ‘Take good care of him.’ and walked out,” Irons said.

Irons said the man from the Valley had obviously been drinking heavily as he walked out of the station headed for his SUV in the parking lot.

Irons said that in the meantime a fellow Greer firefighter and also local teacher, Claudia Schley, went to the side of the man’s son and entertained him as other firefighters swiftly went outside to see what the distraught man intended.

In the passenger’s seat beside him was a loaded pistol, Irons said.

Fearing what could happen next, Irons started talking to his brother firefighter, creating a bond and keeping the man from driving away and possibly shooting himself.

Other firefighters kept vigil around the scene also supporting their distraught brother.

Irons said that as he kept the man occupied, others were in contact behind the scenes with Phoenix area fire officials to get support and keep them informed of what was going on.

Still others clandestinely placed wheel chocks under the tires of the man’s SUV to keep him from trying to drive away.

“It was fortunate that we were all here when this happened,” Irons said, adding that it was a team effort keeping the man at the station for about an hour before Apache County Sheriff’s deputies arrived.

Irons said the man was calmer than when he first arrived at the station, but was still acting a little erratic when ACSO deputies spoke to him.

“They felt threatened by him and Tased him,” Irons said. “But I had a pretty good rapport with him by then and went to the hospital with him to be checked out after he was Tased.”

“I was able to speak with the deputies and explain that the man was having mood swings and was clearly struggling with himself and asked them (deputies) that he only be charged with misdemeanors instead of any felonies.”

Deputies agreed.

Irons reminded that firefighters are among the first responders who in the course of their daily jobs sometimes have to see and deal with the worst life can present.

He said his brother firefighter from the Valley was suffering the aftermath of such experiences, coupled with alcohol abuse.

He said firefighters are prone to things like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of what they do.

This man was one of them.

Irons said he spoke with the man’s ex-wife and the boy’s mother after he came back from the hospital and made arrangements with her to come get her son instead of having Child Protection Services get involved and take custody of the boy.

In the meantime, Claudia Schley looked after the boy for around eight hours while awaiting the mother’s arrival.

Irons also took it upon himself to retrieve the camping gear left at Big Lake by the man when he came to the station and then deliver it to the woman in Phoenix.

“I have another place down in Phoenix, so when I went down I took that stuff to her,” Irons said.

Irons said he has spoken with the man since that day and that he is hopeful he will do better.

Irons said he was surprised that he was named an Arizona 2019 Firefighter of the Year while once again reiterating that it was not just him who truly deserved the award.

“It wasn’t just me, it was a team,” he said emphatically.

Irons was first a Phoenix firefighter for 25 years and then semi-retired for another 12 years before joining the Greer Fire Department May 1 of this year.


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Local teen pregnancy rates well above state and national average

APACHE & NAVAJO COUNTIES —Good news: Teen pregnancy rates have fallen by about 50 percent in the United States among girls 15 to 19 since 1990, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Bad news: Arizona’s teen pregnancy rate remains double the national average.

Complicated news: Comprehensive sex education works, but it’s on the decline.

The national teen pregnancy rate in 2017 stood at 25 per 1,000 girls age 15-19 nationally and 30 per 1,000 in Arizona. That puts Arizona’s rate 20 percent above the national average.

By contrast, the teen pregnancy rate in Apache County stands at 40 and the Navajo County rate at 55 per 1,000. That’s twice the national average. Gila County fell in between Navajo and Apache at 49.

The teen birthrate in all three counties has declined along with the national average, but has remained far above the norm.

Despite the big drop in teen pregnancies in recent decades, the U.S. still has among the highest teen birthrates in the industrialized world. Some 88 percent of the births to girls aged 15 to 17 are unplanned and unwanted. Some 1 million teenagers give birth each year in the U.S., accounting for 13 percent of all births.

Studies show such a pregnancy can have a huge impact on a girl and her baby.

Some 80 percent of teenage mothers end up on welfare at some point. They’re much more likely to drop out of school, so only one third receive even a high school diploma. They’re also at higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse. Teen fathers also have reduced earning potential. Studies suggest teen pregnancies end up costing some $7 billion annually in lost tax revenues, public assistance, child health care and added costs for foster care and the criminal justice system, according to a summary of research by Dr. Stanley Swierzewski.

Against that backdrop, the Apache County Board of Supervisors last week renewed its contract to offer a comprehensive sex education program in Ganado High School, which has yielded big gains in the past.

The program offered on the Navajo Reservation uses many traditional Navajo concepts to teach teens about healthy relationships, going far beyond sex education to talk about issues of identity, respect, violence, dating and healthy relationships.

Past evaluations have shown students who undergo the 10-12-week program reported a 33 percent lower pregnancy rate, 14 percent fewer school suspensions and 11 percent fewer missed classes.

The course description concludes, “all programs use evidence-based curricula that has been proven to delay sexual activity, improve contraception use among sexually active teens and prevent teen pregnancy as well as reduce dropout rates.”

The “Smart Girls Life Skill Training Program” goals include increased knowledge of sexually transmitted disease, contraception and pregnancy as well as how to deal with dating violence, coercion and sexual assertiveness. The program aims to empower young women and build self-esteem and confidence.

The “Wise Guys” program stresses male responsibility in hopes the teens will delay sexual involvement, talk to parents about sexuality, adopt healthy sex role attitudes and acquire greater knowledge of sexuality issues.

The program includes many of the hallmarks of the array of sex education programs that have proven effective in the past 30 years, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in supporting sex education programs, with a big shift in funding in recent years from comprehensive sex education programs to programs that mostly stress abstinence and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases – with minimal information on birth control.

The issue has hit home in Arizona this year, with a furor about efforts by the State Department of Education to update the curriculum for sex education statewide.

Most school districts in Arizona offer little or no sex education instruction, since state law leaves it up to district to determine what they want to teach – if anything. Many districts that do offer some instruction stress abstinence, with minimal discussion of contraceptives for fear of encouraging teens to have sex.

However, parent protests prompted State Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman to drop her initial efforts to introduce new curriculum and requirements. Sen. Sylvia Allen, who represents the White Mountains and heads the Senate Education Committee, strongly opposed efforts to expand sex education in Arizona schools, saying some of the materials were too sexually explicit and that educating teens about sex was a topic best left to parents.

Studies suggest a comprehensive, carefully-designed program that includes training for teachers can produce the kinds of broad benefits the Ganado High School Program has yielded, according to the National Academy of Pediatrics.

However, research suggests that most “abstinence-only” programs don’t have much effect on the sexual behavior of teenagers. Some studies suggest the programs may delay the onset of sexual activity. Most studies show little difference between sexual activity, pregnancy rates and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases between students in an “abstinence-only” programs and students who don’t take any sex ed classes at all.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, National Education Association and the National School Boards Association all oppose abstinence-only education and endorse comprehensive sexuality education that includes both abstinence promotion and accurate information about contraception, human sexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases.

However, studies also show that such comprehensive programs have been diminishing. The studies also show that most teens don’t talk to either their parents or their doctors about these issues. Fewer than half of high school students and 20 percent of middle school students take sex education programs that include all the elements of those proven successful in reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Although 80 percent of teens in school receive the “abstinence” message, fewer than half get any information about birth control.

The most successful programs went beyond technical and medical information on things like birth control and pregnancy to talk about relationships, resisting peer pressure, taking responsibility and other more complicated topics. The successful programs mostly used community-specific approaches and involvement, along with training for teachers. Most involved role playing and a variety of approaches to conveying the message, according to one survey of effective programs.

“I wish I could tell you that there was a study that showed that this program taught in this school is going to help kids throughout the United States fulfill all the outcomes that people want to fulfill, but there isn’t such a study,” said Cora Collette Breuner, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s committee on adolescence.

Leslie Kantor with Rutgers School of Public Health analyzed the most successful sex education programs in the country and concluded the best programs discussed specific sexual and protective behaviors, including the encouragement of abstinence and the use of condoms or other contraception. Some 90 percent of the effective programs included training for the teachers teaching the class.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com


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Making the perfect jack-o-lantern

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Nothing says Halloween quite the way a jack-o-lantern does. Those bright orange gourds, hollowed out and carved, instantly evoke childhood memories of fall fun and candy. For my family, jack-o-lanterns have become the centerpiece to our Halloween display, and it’s not unusual for us to make a dozen or more jack-o-lanterns every year. Pumpkin carving has grown into a fun family tradition over the years, and it’s one I’m happy to share with others.

The perfect pumpkin

A good jack-o-lantern starts with a good pumpkin. Every year, we make a trip out to the Willis Farm in Snowflake because of their amazing variety of pumpkins. But wherever you pick your pumpkins, look for a carving pumpkin with a strong, sturdy handle and one that is heavy for its size. Avoid any “warty” pumpkins, which are more gourd-like and nearly impossible to carve by hand, as well as any short, round Cinderella varieties, which are not good for carving but amazing for pies and baked goods. For more intricate styles of carving, look for a pumpkin that has a smoother surface and is not as deeply ribbed.

You can get your pumpkins weeks beforehand and store them until Halloween if you keep them indoors, away from heat sources, and out of direct sunlight.

The carving

I usually carve my pumpkins no more than two days ahead of time, to keep them fresh and good looking come Halloween. A simple kitchen knife can do the job, but for those wanting to try elaborate faces and characters like you might see on the internet or on competition shows, you will need some different tools. My go-to tools are: a cheap plastic drop cloth for the mess, a red Sharpie marker for layout, a basic kit of wood carving chisels, an encaustic loop scraper tool (a sharpened scraping tool used for pottery making), toothpicks and an X-ACTO knife. The red Sharpie allows you to lay out your designs first and is less noticeable than a black marker would be. An encaustic scraper looks like a ribbon-wire triangle mounted onto a handle, and it’s one of the best tools you can use for removing pumpkin skin or thin layers of pumpkin meat without gouging into the pumpkin. The wood carving tools make adding texture much easier and faster than trying to do it all with a knife. Multiple v-shaped grooves carved into the pumpkin, for example, can convey the textures of hair, fabric, or even wrinkles, depending on the size and shape of the tool. And for those sharp edges and deep cuts, nothing beats an X-ACTO blade. Toothpicks can be used to attach extra pieces of pumpkin to your carving for horns or ears, and to gauge how thick your pumpkin is. If you push a toothpick into your pumpkin from the inside about one half an inch, and you hit the toothpick while carving, then you know how deep you have gone.

After carving, coat all the cut edges and skinless areas of your pumpkins in some non-stick cooking spray to keep them from losing moisture and shriveling up.

Display your creation

Most of us were taught to cut open the top of our pumpkins so that we can put a light inside, but it’s much easier to cut open a hole on the bottom instead. If cut evenly, your pumpkin will be more stable, and it’s easier to lift the edge of a pumpkin up to get to the light than it is to fish it out from the top.

Candles are the traditional lighting choice for jack-o-lanterns, but they are rarely bright enough on their own, and they often go out through the night. Your pumpkin will look its best with a bright, battery-operated light, or better yet, a lightbulb inside of your jack-o-lantern. For keeping the large amount of jack-o-lanterns we make lit, we run a string of outdoor-rated construction work lights so that every pumpkin gets its own bulb. The lines and bulbs can be reused every year, and it makes lighting them all fast and easy.

Whether it’s a masterpiece or just a silly face, there’s no wrong way to make a jack-o-lantern! This craft is all about making holiday magic for trick-or-treaters and enjoying the bounty of autumn with your family in a fun and creative way.

Amber Shepard is a local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics, and she carves amazing pumpkins!