Arizona Highways 'old timers' recall storied times

A group of "old timers" met in Payson April at Peter Aleshire's home to reminisce about their times at Arizona Highways. Pictured are (back row) Peter Ensenberger, Tom Danielsen, Bob Albano, Sue Clemenz, Chuck Lawsen, Leo Banks, Peter Aleshire, (front row) Lois Jacka, Jerry Jacka, Robert McDonald, Les Manevitz, Jo Baeza and Don Dedera. Arizona Highways contributors attending but not pictured: Nick Berezenko and Edward McCain.

There is something inspiring about working with a group of talented individuals who are dedicated to creating a work of timeless beauty. Those words normally bring to mind the fine arts – great works of architecture, sculpture, painting, music or dance. You don’t think of a magazine as lasting art, but for decades people around the world have kept back copies of Arizona Highways magazine stacked in basements, closets or attics until death forces heirs to hold yard sales.

For many years, AH was just too good for the dump. You can’t say that about many magazines today. There was a time when a gift subscription to AH was an anticipated Christmas gift, like oranges during the Great Depression. Give kids today a magazine subscription for Christmas and they’ll consider leaving home. Kids today! You’ve got to love ‘em, but if they can’t read it on a portable electronic device, it goes in the recycle bin.

To the many writers and photographers who have contributed to the magazine over the years, their work was a labor of love that enabled them to explore the people and land of Arizona. On April 20, a group of these “old timers” assembled in Payson at Peter Aleshire’s home on the East Verde River to spin stories and enjoy each others’ company. Aleshire, a former Highways editor and contributor, hosted the affair and cooked up fajitas to boot.

Just when people had separated into comfortable corners to chat and chomp, a dispute rocked the cordial atmosphere. I had confidently claimed the title of “Oldest Living Contributor” to Arizona Highways when I sent out invitations. Former AH editor and writer Don Dedera declared me a fraud. In an attempt to usurp my title because he is two years older, he decided a trial must be held with a “Jury of Their Peers” deciding the outcome.

In his testimony, Dedera stated he had submitted a photograph of a cotton boll, or maybe it was a boll weevil, or maybe a cotton ball, to AH taken during his youthful experiences as a cotton chopper in the early part of the century, or maybe it was the mid-century. Under oath, he was forced to admit the photo was rejected by legendary editor Raymond Carlson. When Dedera became editor of AH many years later, he wrote a letter to himself accepting the photograph. While strictly legal, his actions can only be considered vindictive, not ethical, the jury determined.

Myself, on the other hand, came with hard evidence in hand – a copy of the July 1956 magazine featuring my story on the “Hashknife Outfit” written under my maiden name, Jo Johnson. Dedera objected, saying my first story, submitted in 1954, had been rejected. I defended my title by recounting that the editor had indeed paid me for my first awful attempt out of pity, but had never used it. “The Hashknife Outfit” was an assignment. Case dismissed.

I retain the title of “Oldest Living Contributor” until an older contributor comes along, which seems unlikely at this time.

Of course, it was all in fun. As I remarked to Aleshire, paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Writers are different from other people.” And Aleshire replied, paraphrasing Hemingway, “Yes, they are a pain in the … ”

For decades, Arizona Highways has inspired people around the world to come to Arizona and see for themselves the wonders of nature portrayed on its pages. It was a larger-than-average magazine, to showcase photos of a larger-than-life state. At the height of its popularity, it won nearly every award a magazine could win, here and abroad.

Few people today know that the magazine, in its own small way, contributed to the end of the Cold War by showing people behind the Iron Curtain what America and Americans were really like. Following World War II, the Soviet Union surrounded itself with an “Iron Curtain” of ideology that was exemplified by the Berlin Wall. From 1945-1991, non-Communist ideas were forcefully kept out. People were forcefully kept in.

Arizona Highways magazine was banned in the Soviet Union during that time.

Dedera remembers it well. He was on assignment for the Arizona Republic in 1962. He wrote, “I smuggled 25 copies as gifts for people I’d met behind the Iron Curtain. The immigration commissar at Leningrad found them and went ballistic until I gave him a drip-dry shirt. So the magazines passed right through, and in the next weeks and months corrupted the people to such an extent they overthrew the Communist regime.”

The first issue of Arizona Highways came out on April 15, 1925, published by engineers in the Arizona Highway Department to encourage tourism to the state. The magazine had 26 pages, all black and white, and contained information for travelers.

In 1938, during the Great Depression, the state hired Raymond Carlson, a recent Stanford graduate, as editor. He transformed the magazine from an atlas of road travel to a celebration of Arizona’s scenic wonders. He hired George Avey as art editor and recruited the best photographers in the Southwest, including Ansel Adams, Esther Henderson and Joseph Muench.

By the end of World War II, the magazine had grown to 56 pages and was in circulation around the world. Some of the pioneer photographers were Carlos Elmer, Ray Manley, Allen Reed, Herb and Dorothy McLaughlin, Dick Dietrich, Bob and Sue Clemenz, Jerry Jacka and James Tallon. Early day illustrators included Larry Toschik, Ted DeGrazia and Ross Santee.

In 1946, AH published the first all-color issue of a nationally-circulated consumer magazine. The full-color format became standard in January 1986. In the beginning, the magazine was subsidized by the Arizona State Legislature to support tourism. The magazine has received no tax support since 1982. It survives on subscriptions, auxiliary products and, most recently, advertising.

The old timers who found their way to Aleshire’s house in Payson last month enjoyed themselves so much they have decided to make it an annual affair. It may be in another location, though. As Robert McDonald of Flagstaff noted, Pete’s directions to his house resembled plans for the Normandy Invasion.

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