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."