After receiving an offer in 1977 to become the next president of Scottsdale Community College, the late Dr. Art DeCabooter told his wife, Mary: “Well, we’ll try it for a year or so. If we like it, we’ll stay and buy a bigger home with a pool. If not, we’ll go back to the Midwest.”
They did more than like Scottsdale, and played a key role in the development of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
And at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, the community will honor that contribution by dedicating the Art D. DeCabooter Amphitheater at the Preserve’s Pima Dynamite Trailhead.
DeCabooter, who remained in his leadership role at SCC from February 1978 to July 2008, died Oct. 8, 2019, at age 78.
“Scottsdale has the McDowell Sonoran Preserve today in large part because Art DeCabooter led the way forward,” read the Sept. 27, 2017, nomination to name the amphitheater at the Pima Dynamite Trailhead for him.
This was presented to the city’s Preserve director, Kroy Ekblaw, who submitted it to the seven-member McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, which then recommended it to Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane and the City Council for approval.
“’Dr. Art’ gave Scottsdale’s ‘Preserve Effort’ legitimacy and leadership from its very beginning in the early 1990s,” the nomination continued. “He opened doors and gained support from segments of the community to which the so-called ‘cactus huggers’ had little access or credibility at the time.
“His principled, dedicated and inclusive leadership over the past three decades has ensured that what started as a far-fetched idea has grown into the 30,000-plus acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, one of the largest urban preserves in the United States.”
City Council voted unanimously approved the naming on Nov. 13, 2017.
“By chance, it will be exactly four years from the day Council approved it to the dedication ceremony on Nov. 13, 2021,” observed Scott Hamilton, the city’s natural resources manager for the Preserve and Pinnacle Peak Park.
Although not part of the official approval process, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a private volunteer group dedicated to stewarding the preserve, also endorsed the amphitheater’s name.
“Art DeCabooter’s passion for protecting and preserving open space cannot be underestimated,” said Justin Owen, CEO of the Conservancy, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“As president of Scottsdale Community College, Art was instrumental in helping the Conservancy advocate for the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and launching our steward program,” Owen said, adding:
“Naming the amphitheater in his honor is a testament to the commitment he had for ensuring education is paramount to the work we do and how we engage with our community.”
Mary, his wife of 49 years, said, “Art was positive and upbeat, people trusted him and he was a fantastic listener.”
They met at Indiana University, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and she a bachelor’s in elementary education. After they married, he worked on a doctorate in higher education and she a master’s in library science.
A former Catholic monk, DeCabooter, an Omaha, Nebraska, native, left the priesthood because he believed he could do more for his church and the community in secular service, he told Mary.
After a position as dean of students at St. Gregory’s College in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he was dean of Student Personnel at Black Hawk East College in Kewanee, Illinois, becoming provost, or president, when he was 31.
After six and a half years in Illinois, he became president at SCC. The couple had three children, Kristen, David and Laura, providing them with seven grandchildren; an eighth is due in April 2022.
Another early Preserve champion, Mayor Herb Drinkwater, appointed him founding chair of the city’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, a seven-member group that ensures that it will be stewarded in the public interest. DeCabooter remained in that role for 15 years.
In 1994 he guided the discussions that helped create the Preserve, and the following year led the citizens’ group that encouraged voters to approve a small sales tax increase to fund land purchases.
“Herb had put Art on other committees in the past, and the Preserve was a natural for him to mediate the varying factions on the Preserve,” explained Mary, who still lives in Scottsdale.
Throughout DeCabooter’s Commission tenure, and after the five public votes, the Preserve expanded from zero acres to more than 20,000. Scottsdale adopted an ordinance to govern its use and management, expanded the boundary to include the 19,000-acre northern area and began to construct trailheads and trails.
Today, the Preserve comprises 30,580 acres of permanently protected open space –– the largest municipal preserve in the continental U.S. and one-third of the city –– with a multiple-use nonmotorized trail system of 232 miles and 11 major trailheads and numerous other neighborhood accesses.
From the early 1990s, when the “Save the McDowells” campaign began, DeCabooter was able to unite divergent interests such as environmentalists and the business and development communities.
In this effort, he ensured that education would be a major function of the Preserve.
He opened the Center for Native and Urban Wildlife at Scottsdale Community College in 2000, assisted by then Councilwoman Virginia Korte. He also helped begin the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Steward program in 1998. Today, more than 700 blue-shirted volunteers help maintain the Preserve.
“Art’s steady leadership, college-president credentials coupled with the passion of hundreds of other enthusiasts to save the desert, made the magic happen,” said former Mayor Sam Kathryn Campana.
DeCabooter also participated in a wide range of civic groups. He was president of the Scottsdale Charros, Scottsdale Rotary Club and the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. He served on the board of trustees for the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and the advisory board for Xavier College Preparatory.
In addition, he was a co-founder and board member of Scottsdale Leadership and a board member of Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems, Scottsdale Foundation for the Handicapped.
Campana said the amphitheater will host students who will learn about the Sonoran Desert as well as Conservancy stewards researching and learning new conservation techniques and organizations deciding how to better respect the native landscape.
“It’s a most fitting tribute to a beloved environmentalist,” she said.
The conceptual design for the amphitheater began in late 2017, construction started in July 2020 and has just been completed.
The design of the Pima Dynamite Trailhead, including the amphitheater, was handled by Scottsdale-based Weddle Gilmore Architects, which has completed several Preserve structures.
“Weddle Gilmore has an excellent understanding of the functional needs of our Preserve trailheads as well as our aesthetic goals of creating trailhead sites and buildings that look like they have been there all along,” Hamilton explained. “We strive for facilities that have a timeless feel to them and blend with the natural Sonoran Desert surrounding.”
The general contractor was Path Construction Southwest, Scottsdale, and the landscape architecture was designed by Phoenix-based Floor and Associates, which has collaborated with Weddle Gilmore on other Preserve projects.
The predominant materials are rusted steel and concrete for the bench seating – all low-maintenance with colors and textures appropriate for the natural desert. A biographical sign panel is mounted next to the site.
The amphitheater honors what he did and who he was.
“Art was not judgmental. He was just very agreeable and likeable,” Mary said. “He was always willing to take a leadership role in whatever group he was part of, if asked. He served on multiple boards at the same time, never showing signs of distress or anxiety.
“He didn’t seek those roles; he just took them on naturally. He was a workaholic visionary. He was willing to make decisions and stand behind them and he almost always made people come to an agreement.”