A1 A1
Remembering Buck Biddle: Everybody's buddy

PINETOP-LAKESIDE — There may not be an official Who’s Who in the White Mountains, but you can be sure if there was that Roy “Buck” Biddle would be in it.

On Easter Sunday, April 12 at approximately 10:30 a.m. the man who was the go-to guy for anybody that needed anything, slipped into the arms of angels.

Having just spent a day at the hospital the week before due to breathing and heart difficulties, which he had experienced for years, Buck quit breathing on Easter morning. The family he lived with administered CPR while waiting for the EMTs to arrive, they managed to get a pulse and transported him to the hospital.

Cindy Simonsen and her son Max, along with Mike McLain who shared their home with Buck, followed the ambulance to the hospital. Though he was unconscious, Cindy was in the room with Buck and made a number of phone calls to the family members and friends closest to him, and placed the phone to his ear so they could say their goodbyes.

He never regained consciousness.

It has been said more than once that Buck had nine lives, based on the number of intensive care unit admissions in his lifetime, he had double that number. With each emergency admittance, it was either the numerous prayers offered on his behalf or the fact that his mission was not complete that rallied him each time.

Born in Maryland in 1953, Buck joined the Navy in 1971 and traveled the country for 22 years. He married and had a daughter named Trista whom he was devoted to and called frequently no matter where his travels took him.

Buck and his wife divorced and he found his way to Arizona and met Rose Hutchison in Tempe and they were partners for 16 years. Still friends even after going separate ways, they saw each other and spoke every week. Five or six years ago on a return trip from wintering with his sister in Florida, Buck was admitted to the hospital on arrival in Phoenix. On release, it was too cold for him to return to Show Low so he stayed with Rose for three months until it warmed up.

“We were much better friends after we split,” say Rose, “than when we were together. When we moved to Show Low, within two weeks Buck knew everyone there. He was always going somewhere and I would tag along and he introduced me as his wife. When people needed something, they would come to Buck and ask and he would get it done, no matter what it was. I called him Radar O’Reilly.”

“I don’t know how people even knew to call Buck,” said Rose, “but all kinds of people would call him and he would get it done.”

Photo by Amie Rogers  

Steve Day, left presents an award to Buck Biddle for his community service from the National Submarine Veterans in 2019.

There is story after story of the countless deeds performed by Buck and his recruits. Close to his heart was the White Mountain S.A.F.E. House, White Mountain Hospice Foundation and the Submarine Vets. He raised money, sold tickets, bartered, secured, gently coerced and got whatever was needed to make a large or small event a success. He was named Citizen of the Year for the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber, recipient of the Director’s Award for the Snowflake-Taylor Chamber, and just ast November received the second highest award from the National Submarine Vets. There are also many deeds he performed with funds from his own pocket to help somebody in need.

Buck met Cindy Simonsen some years ago at a back-to-school clothes giveaway in Show Low. Cindy’s church was responsible for the clothing and Buck and the Sub Vets were cooking the hot dogs. They became friends and kept in touch. Later Cindy and her son Max and friend Mike McLain bought a house together on the Mountain. On another of Buck’s many hospital admissions, in order to be discharged he had to be released into someone’s care. Cindy and Mike invited him into their home. And he stayed.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

Buck Biddle at the Elks’ Veteran’s Dinner Buck Biddle, second from the left, with his Submarine Vets compatriots at the Elks Club Veteran’s Day Dinner, 2018.

“He held court down on the patio,” said Cindy. “I would look out the window and there would be these people out there with him. It used to be our house, but it became Buck’s house.”

“We had a smoking room enclosed for him – part of the patio; he would smoke with oxygen and the propane heater. He would say, ‘It is so cold out there,’ and I would say, ‘And yet you still smoke.

“He could be a jerk, but he had the biggest heart. He would do anything for you.”

Mike said, “Even in death he gave back because he was an organ and tissue donor.”

“We were surprised,” said Cindy, “that they could use anything, but they were able to use his tissue.”

In 2012 Buck went to see Tim Livingston at Owens Livingston Mortuary to make and pay for his funeral arrangements. He wanted to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He wanted an open casket and to have a party like a chamber mixer and invite everybody to enjoy hors d’oeuvres and have an open mic where they could tell their favorite Buck stories.

“We do not know when Buck will be buried but he will be buried in Arlington. Additional preparations have been made for his daughter when she passes,” explained Livingston. “It is one of the benefits for veterans with permanently dependent children.”

Due to COVID-19, Livingston said Arlington is running anywhere from three weeks to three months behind. He has spoken with family members and friends regarding ideas for the party and with social distancing, it could only be accomplished with letting 10 people come in at a time and then exit. And, depending on when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the party may or may not take place with Buck’s body present.

In the meantime Buck’s body will remain at the funeral home with all funeral plans on hold.

South county case count remains stable

WHITE MOUNTAINS — As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb on the Navajo Nation Reservation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the number of cases appears to be stable in other White Mountain communities.

But that could be deceptive, because very few people across the two counties have been tested for the virus.

Plus, counts for the number of cases from different sources don’t always add up, making it unclear just how many total cases there are.

Navajo County

As of Thursday, Navajo County was reporting 77 cases outside of reservation lands in the county, and the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) is reporting 410 for the county.

The Navajo Nation said that they have 288 cases on reservation lands in Navajo County.

There are at least 10 cases in the Winslow area, according to AZDHS zip code data.

Other areas in the county appear to have a minimal number of cases. According to the zip code database developed by AZDHS, Pinetop, Lakeside, Show Low and Snowflake all have 1 to 5 cases. Heber-Overgaard has zero.

But only 1,539 people in Navajo County have been tested.

Apache County

In Apache County, AZDHS is reporting 118 cases in the county, with 1,101 people tested. But the Navajo Nation is reporting 121 cases on reservation lands in Apache County.

Apache County Health Director Preston Raban is reporting just one case outside of the Navajo Nation Reservation in the southern portion of the county, in Eagar.

No cases have been reported in Vernon, Concho, St. Johns, Springerville or Alpine.

Navajo Nation Reservation

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez continues to urge people to stay home, after a 57-hour curfew last weekend. Still the number of cases continues to spiral upward, with 921 cases across the sprawling reservation, which includes portions of Utah, New Mexico and Navajo, Apache and Coconino counties in Arizona. A total of 83 new cases were reported on Wednesday alone.

President Nez worried that the stimulus checks that some residents were starting to receive were drawing people out to go shopping.

“We truly thank many of those who are abiding by the stay-at-home order and the daily curfew, but it’s very disheartening to receive reports of many people going out into the public … to border towns – most due to the federal stimulus funds that our people are beginning to receive. We are close to finalizing another public health order to implement 57-hour curfew for the remaining weekends for the month of April,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on Facebook.

White Mountain Apache Tribe

On Wednesday, the White Mountain Apache Tribe was reporting a total of 32 cases, up 12 from Tuesday.

Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood was also concerned about gatherings on the reservation that have the potential to spread the disease, including funerals.

“As the leader of our people, I am charged with the duty of protecting the health, safety and welfare of our people … such as the invisible coronavirus pandemic, that threaten our livelihood and our loved ones. The Tribal Council saw the speed in which the pandemic has been sweeping through the Navajo Nation and we did not want the same thing to happen here. This is why the Tribal Council adopted the social distance restrictions that have been proving to work in other states and countries,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Statewide, social distancing does appear to be bringing the total number of cases down. In the daily case counts posted by AZDHS, there were 189 new cases statewide on April 10, but only 73 on April 11 and 81 on April 13.

Watson signs contract to assist county with COVID-19 recovery

NAVAJO COUNTY — Faced with an economic meltdown and a pandemic, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors this week turned to a familiar face for help.

The Supervisors approved a $10,000-per-month contract with retired assistant county manager Paul Watson to cope with the fallout of COVID-19 — from salvaging economic development to prying money loose from the state and federal government.

Watson worked for various government agencies in the White Mountains for 31 years before he retired last October from his job as Navajo County Economic Development Director. The county at that time approved a six-month contract to keep him working on economic development issues two days a week.

But the board of supervisors brought him back on a full-time with a week-to-week, $120,000 annual contract to help cope with the economic devastation of COVID 19.

The county has one of the highest concentrations of COVID-19 in the state, which has shut down the vital tourism industry. Even before the virus struck, the county had lost hundreds of high-paying jobs in mines and coal-fired power plants.

His new contract position will include making sure the county gets its share of assistance for local governments in the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package adopted by Congress – mostly to bail out businesses and improve unemployment benefits during the crisis.

The CARES act included $150 billion for states, tribal governments and local governments to cover costs related to the pandemic. Navajo County offers a host of services critical to the pandemic response, from contact tracing people exposed to the virus to enrolling a flush of people seeking coverage by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). The county can get grants to provide child care, gloves and masks, services for impoverished families and additional services related to the pandemic – but all of it involves jumping through hoops and filling out paperwork.

Watson has broad experience in economic development, even before hiring on at the county in 2015. He served as Snowflake town manger for seven years, manager of Pinetop-Lakeside for 13 years and finance director for Eagar for several years.

At Navajo County, he worked on a partially successful effort to save the wood products industry in the White Mountains as the logging industry shut down and a major paper mill closed. He’s been deeply involved in efforts to save the state’s only biomass plant near Snowflake as well as a small-log sawmill, both crucial to stalled forest thinning efforts.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Navajo Generating Plant and the Kayenta Coal Mine also hammered the local economy, providing 1,100 direct jobs and 4,500 indirect jobs.

As a result, Navajo and Apache counties were already reeling before COVID-19 hit. Statewide, the unemployment rate has risen to at least 7 percent – perhaps 15 percent – in a month. Historically, unemployment in Apache and Navajo counties has remained 1 or 2 percent above the statewide average – even in the midst of economic recovery. The unemployment rate on the Navajo Reservation typically hovers around 50 percent, but with the reservation essentially on lockdown due to the spread of the virus, the jobless rate has undoubtedly spiraled.

Statewide, last week another 95,000 Arizona residents filed for unemployment – second only to the 128,000 who filed for benefits the week before that. As of April 10, 164,000 people were on the rolls. The federal CARES Act relief package has expanded for unemployment eligibility to part-time and self-employed workers and raised maximum benefits from $240 a week to $840 a week for at least the next two months.

The Department of Economic Services has been overwhelmed by requests for benefits, but says people are starting to receive the enhanced benefits now. People delayed by the crush of new applications will receive the higher maximum benefit retroactively to the date they first submitted an application.

The economic carnage convinced the Board of Supervisors to extend Watson’s contract for the duration. Watson will continue to work with the county and cities throughout the region to attract new businesses, get in line for federal stimulus money and cope with the array of impacts from the pandemic.

As of Thursday Arizona had 4,234 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 150 deaths. That included 410 cases and 11 deaths in Navajo County and 118 cases and four confirmed deaths in Apache County. Both Navajo County and Apache county have among the highest per-capita case rates in the state, with most of those cases concentrated on the Navajo Reservation.

Watson will serve as the liaison between Navajo County and state, local and federal agencies when it comes to both economic development and the pandemic. That includes gathering information and participating in conference calls, press conferences, meetings and other events.

The agreement can be terminated with seven days notice.

Timber Mesa fire personnel impacted by COVID-19

SHOW LOW — As cases of the coronavirus continue to increase in Navajo County, some agencies have been impacted more than others. Our local firefighters have had to work extraordinarily hard to keep up with new guidance from local, state and federal agencies, prepare themselves for the pandemic by seeking personal protective equipment (PPE) from any and all sources, and work to protect themselves and their families, all while continuing to serve our communities.

The Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District has reported that as many as 22 of their personnel have been exposed to COVID-19, six of whom were quarantined originally, and four of whom remain quarantined until their symptoms subside for at least 72 hours. Chief Bryan Savage stated that he is frustrated that all six have not been tested. In fact, only one of the affected firefighters was tested by Navajo County Health. Another is awaiting test results through another source in Phoenix. The other four are not being tested at all.

“We are working closely with Navajo County Health to monitor the affected employees, protect our other employees and to protect the public,” Savage said. Firefighters, along with other first responders and healthcare workers have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a priority for testing. However, due to a lack of testing materials, they are not being tested even when they have been exposed.

The firefighter who was tested by Navajo County Health was tested as a result of aggressive contact tracing (a process of identifying people who came in contact with a confirmed COVID patient) and due to the level of exposure since this firefighter lived in the same home as a confirmed COVID patient. “We anticipated that our exposure would come from patient contact, but that’s not what happened,” said Savage. “Our firefighter was exposed at home and brought it to work with him.”

“I want the public to feel secure in our firefighters, their health, and their ability to respond,” Savage said. “We have closed our facilities to the public to limit exposure. We are evaluating each members’ health prior to each work cycle. Those personnel who have been exposed are thoroughly evaluated by Navajo County Health prior to being allowed to work again. Our firefighters are all wearing the appropriate PPE during any public contact and during any patient contact; we are doing all of this to protect our firefighters and the public.”

While the new cases on the Navajo Reservation have begun to slow, the “off-reservation” cases are just beginning to rise. Chief Savage stated, “We still anticipate a steady increase of COVID patients in the communities of southern Navajo County.”

With that in mind, residents and visitors are encouraged to continue to follow CDC guidance on social distancing, personal hygiene, and wearing a mask if they have to leave the house.

St. John’s Teacher Parade

On April 14, teachers and staff from St. Johns schools decorated their vehicles and drove around city in a “Teacher’s parade” in order to cheer up their students and let them know how much they are missed. Residents parked along the parade route waved and cheered as their favorite teachers drove by.