The right-wing heiress who changed course in the desert
by Tony Davis
The setting was low-key, a straw-bale house on a historic northern Arizona ranch, with Western landscape art on the walls. Yet for 17 years beginning in the early 1990s, the annual Straw Bale Forums at the Hat Ranch attracted many prominent Arizonan politicians, conservation leaders and academics. As they sat around wooden tables hashing out hot-button issues like "The Future of Water," the silver-haired, hazel-eyed woman who owned the ranch listened quietly and occasionally asked a question. Slender and 5-foot-6-inches tall, she wasn't physically imposing. But no one had any doubt that Bazy Tankersley was in charge.
Ruth McCormick "Bazy" Tankersley, who died in Tucson in February at age 91, was a wealthy heiress and conservation-minded philanthropist, and probably the world's most prolific Arabian horse breeder. She donated to environmental groups, invested heavily in pioneering environmental research, and put a conservation easement on the Hat Ranch. She also worked behind the scenes for disabled children, education, culture and the arts. When she died, she bequeathed her $30 million Tucson horse farm to the University of Arizona.
But her roots lay in an entirely different world. She grew up in the Midwest, part of an influential, extremely conservative Republican family, and was a supporter of the rabidly anti-Communist Sen. Joe McCarthy. By the time of her death, her politics had flipped 180 degrees, and the desert where she spent her last 35 years had much to do with her metamorphosis.
Bazy's father, Joseph Medill McCormick, owned daily newspapers in Illinois and served as a U.S. senator, and her mother, Ruth Hanna McCormick, was an Illinois congresswoman. An early turn of fate pointed her Westward: Her father died when she was a toddler, and her mother remarried to a New Mexico congressman, Albert G. Simms. While she was growing up and sometimes during breaks from schools back East, she honed her riding skills on family ranches in New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado. By her early 20s, she already loved the desert; she and her first husband, Peter Miller, began the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Ranch on 40 acres north of Tucson, near the Rillito River.
It took her a while to become a permanent Westerner, though; she returned East to pursue a career in her father's field, journalism, in Illinois and then Washington, D.C., relocating her horse farm to suburban Maryland. When she was 28, her uncle, Col. Robert McCormick -- a strident anti-Communist and anti-New Dealer who ran the Chicago Tribune -- made her publisher of his Washington Times-Herald, at that time D.C.'s largest paper. McCormick said in 1949 that he wanted Bazy to create "an outpost of American principles" in a capital he thought overrun by pinkos and subversives.
Bazy Miller, as she was then known, told Time magazine that the capital was a "parasite community," where politicians and bureaucrats dined off the taxpayers. Time described her as a "plain, unexcitable" woman who "expresses her urge for personal ornamentation by wearing spangle-studded glasses and chunks of costume jewelry."
She ran the Times-Herald for 19 months, using it to advance conservative politics at the highest levels. The Cold War against the Soviet Union and Red China was intensifying, and Republican Sen. McCarthy drummed up fears that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. McCarthy asked Bazy to publish a four-page "hit piece" attacking Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, a Democrat who had proven that McCarthy's charges were overblown. Right as Tydings was seeking re-election, the paper ran a fake photo showing Tydings in an intimate meeting with a Communist Party leader –– two unrelated photos combined and manipulated, but it was enough to help Tydings lose the race. Bazy had crossed an ethical line, however, and a bipartisan Senate panel later condemned her hit piece as a violation of "simple decency and honesty" and "a shocking abuse of the spirit and intent of the First Amendment of the Constitution." That election, and several other Senate races where McCarthy backed successful Republicans, gave the Wisconsin politician national clout for several years.
By the time McCarthy fell into disgrace in the mid-1950s, Bazy and her uncle were at odds: His politics were too strident even for her, and he also didn't approve of her second husband -- the editor who'd faked the photo. He forced her from the publisher's job, and for the next 20 years, she concentrated on raising Arabian horses on her Maryland farm, racking up horse-breeding awards. By the 1970s, she yearned to return to the desert. She told an interviewer, "I would read Arizona Highways (a magazine promoting Arizona with landscape photos) and cry."
Many people say that the work Bazy did in the desert and the conservationists she met there helped nudge her toward a more moderate and at times even liberal stance. She moved back to Arizona in the mid-1970s, bought more than 100 acres along seasonal Sabino Creek near Tucson, and moved the Al-Marah Arabian breeding there. Within a few years, she had thrown herself into helping Defenders of Wildlife preserve Aravaipa Canyon, a remote, 12-mile-long wonderland of saguaros, mesquites and a year-round stream northeast of Tucson.
Defenders bought thousands of acres bracketing the canyon, and to keep federal grazing leases from falling into other hands, brought in a rare variety of Barzona cattle, derived from the bloodlines of African bulls and able to withstand the heat and drought. "Mrs. T" -- as she was affectionately known -- managed the preserve for a decade, helped Defenders buy more land and paid to refurbish a farmhouse there. She also invited wealthy friends to visit and take trail rides, and encouraged them to donate to the cause.
Bazy was an expert rider who wore jeans, cowboy boots and a brimmed hat, recalls Louis Barassi, Defenders' president back then. "She put on no airs. Every time there was a trail ride or some other event, she would be out there, and many times she would go riding with the herd's full-time manager over the range."
Bazy also bought the Hat Ranch, near Williams, in the 1970s and ran cattle on 100,000 acres of federal grazing leases until the 1990s. She practiced holistic rotational grazing and powered the ranch with solar panels. In Flagstaff, she developed an equestrian subdivision and donated development rights to more than 1,500 acres to the Grand Canyon Trust, to prevent further subdividing.
She was low-profile about her charity and community work, which ranged from helping individuals with their medical bills to founding the St. Gregory college prep school in Tucson. She poured close to a million dollars into the aquaculture research of Carl Hodges, director of the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Lab and founder of the Seawater Foundation. Hodges developed shrimp farming on the Mexican coast and various other innovative agriculture methods around the world. Bazy served on his foundation's board and paid to produce a PBS video about his Africa research.
"She was as fine and intellectually competent an environmentalist as anybody I'd ever known," says Hodges, who participated in the Straw Bale Forums, which featured speakers on the environment, water and government as well as other topics, including ethics, globalization, and humans' relationship with animals. Afternoons were reserved for discussion of art, music, photography, literature, bookbinding and horses; evenings were devoted to drinks and poker.
Bazy had a knack for bringing people of disparate backgrounds together, especially mavericks like herself. Another friend, artist Andrew Rush, says the Straw Bale Forums were "like her private university." The most ambitious forum, in 2009, produced a 28-page blueprint calling for advances in renewable energy, building a smart-growth coalition, water conservation and reform of state-land management.
To some, she came across as autocratic, particularly during the mid-1970s when she was president of the board of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She lasted only three years there, due to a dispute over managing staff. Even in later years, "If she served on a board, you never got the feeling that democracy would enter the room," says Herman Bleibtreu, another friend and retired dean of the University of Arizona College of Liberal Arts. "If she was in any position of leadership or power, she was dominant."
Bazy never earned a high school or college degree, seldom flew in an airplane or rode elevators. She liked driving old station wagons or SUVs -- "god-awful cars, so old that everyone got a little concerned that they were kind of rickety," says Bleibtreu. Her Arabian horse operation produced more than 3,000 of the desert-adapted equines over 70 years, and she rode horses clear into her 80s. She often had dogs at her side and kept flocks of chickens. "We weren't even allowed to have an exterminator in the house to kill spiders and ants," recalls Barbara Rosenberg, her longtime personal secretary. "Raccoons lived in the walls, and she just loved that."
In her last decade, she became a registered Democrat. She voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and donated to the campaigns of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who is as well known for her civility as McCarthy was for his demagoguery. "Bazy was always looking for ways to make Arizona a better place from a conservation perspective," recalls another leading Arizona conservationist, Luther Propst. And she developed a sense of humor: Bazy once sent Propst a Christmas card depicting arms wrapped around a huge sequoia tree. It was captioned "a tree hugger's delight."
Tony Davis covers the environment for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, along with regular freelancing for HCN.© High Country News