Community was always the driving force for Dr. Art DeCabooter, the longtime Scottsdale Community College president and civic –minded Scottsdale resident who passed away on Oct. 8 at age 78.
"Community is our middle name,” Dr. DeCabooter used to say in reference ScottsdaleCommunity College, which he led for three decades before retiring in 2008.
Both Scottsdale Councilmember Virginia Korte and fellow civic leader Jim Bruner recalled those words when they remembered their longtime friend.
Dr. DeCabooter’s focus on the community was not just an empty platitude, they said. It was a way of life.
“He served 40 years of his life to Scottsdale and is a true servant leader," Korte said. “Scottsdale was particularly blessed wit his steadfast influence for the betterment of all in Scottsdale; not only the community college but all of our city.”
Korte said that “it was never about Art; it was always about what was best for the community.”
News of Dr. DeCabooter’s hiring in December 1977 made the front page of the Scottsdale Daily Progress.
After coming to Scottsdale in 1978 to take over at SCC, Dr. DeCabooter spent the rest of his life giving back to the Scottsdale community he called home with efforts that extended well beyond the college campus.
From heading up civic organizations like Scottsdale Charros to championing the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Dr. DeCabooter’s fingerprints can be found throughout Scottsdale – and the Valley – to this day.
“In his quiet demeanor, he left a tremendous wake behind him in terms of what he's accomplished in his community,” said Bruner, who had been friends with Dr. DeCabooter for 40 years and served alongside him with the Scottsdale Charros and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.
Another civic leader, Don Ruff, said Dr. DeCabooter’s resume is “really amazing when you put it down on paper.”
Ruff and Dr. DeCabooter first crossed paths in the late 1970s when the former was heading up the local chamber of commerce and the organization held a meet-and-greet to introduce the new college president to the business community.
Ruff and Dr. DeCabooter would go on to trade leadership positons at a number of local groups, including the chamber, Charros, rotary and Catholic Community Foundation.
During his time at SCC, Dr. DeCabooter oversaw significant growth at the college as enrollment jumped from 948 students when he took the job to nearly 12,000 when he retired just over a decade ago.
Bruner said Dr. DeCabooter took over the college during a tumultuous time rocked by tensions stemming from the Vietnam War and was a steadying force on campus.
Dr. DeCabooter is also known for embracing the once-maligned artichoke mascot that drew much criticism when SCC students first voted to adopt it in 1972.
According to Scottsdale Progress reports from the time, the Artichoke was supported by students challenging the “special privileges” afforded athletes in the schools’ sports program. The school would not officially adopt the mascot until 1974 at the direction of the MaricopaCountyCommunity College board.
Dr. DeCabooter embraced the artichoke – discontinuing a policy of previous administrations that many saw as overly antagonistic, according to Progress reports.
“There are people all over this nation who have little stuffed artichokes because he gives them out on plane trips, on travels," former Piper Trust President Judy Jolley Mohraz told East Valley Tribune in 2008.
"It's quite wonderful to imagine all those little artichokes. It's kind of like Johnny Appleseed, but it's Art and his artichokes," Mohraz said.
Beyond his day job at SCC, DeCabooter gave much of his time to civic efforts throughout the city, such as Scottsdale Leadership. He was the longtime chairman of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission and participated in numerous campaigns for local school district overrides throughout his life.
Korte said those various efforts exemplified the fact that Dr. DeCabooter’s focus always extended well beyond the college campus where he worked.
In addition to his long tenure at SCC, Dr. DeCabooter was also the longest serving board member of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce and also the longest serving chair of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.
DeCabooter also found time to lead groups like the Charros, Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club of Scottsdale – at the same time, Bruner said.
“His wife told me once that he had a separate briefcase for each one of the activities – the Charros or chamber or rotary, whatever it might be,” Bruner said.
Dr. DeCabooter, a former parent at the school, also remained involved with Xavier College Preparatory as both a member of the Board of Directors and the School Advisory Board.
He was also involved with National Catholic Education Association.
Beyond his civic engagement, Dr. DeCabooter was also a loving husband to his wife Mary and father to two daughters and a son.
Despite his hectic schedule, he always made time for family.
“Art’s primary focus was always on his family first and then his job as president of ScottsdaleCommunity College,” Ruff said. “But somehow, and I don’t know how, he also found time for extensive service to his community and his church.”
Bruner said Dr. DeCabooter coached girls soccer for 15 years despite having little knowledge of the sport at the outset.
“He always joked that when he started, he didn't know which end of the soccer ball to pickup,” Bruner said.
Many of Dr. DeCabooter’s former players, now grown, held a party last year to honor their former coach, Bruner said.
Though he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, Dr. DeCabooter remained active in the community through the end of his life.
In his later years, Dr. DeCabooter would catch a ride to Charros meetings with Bruner, who said his longtime friend never missed a meeting.
Both Bruner and Ruff credited Mary, Dr. DeCabooter’s wife of nearly five decades, for caring for him following his diagnoses and helping him remain active in his many civic interests.
“She should be nominated for sainthood,” Ruff said.
Though he was SCC’s first and longest-tenured president, Dr. DeCabooter may be equally well-known for his accomplishments outside of the educational institution, namely in the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
“He's considered by some the founding father of the creation of the preserve out there…” Bruner said.
Local Scottsdale historian Joan Fudala wrote in her book “Historic Scottsdale: Life from the Land” that Dr. DeCabooter “led the charge up the preservation hill as chair of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.”
As president of SCC, Dr. DeCabooter worked closely with the non-profit McDowell Sonoran Land Trust to advocate for the preservation of mountains and create the stewardship program that would train the volunteers committed to watching over the land.
“Back in the early 1990s, the core advocates of this preserve concept needed to bring into the fold people of integrity and respect in the community, and Art was the icon of that,” Korte said.
Korte said that early preserve advocates found a willing ally in Dr. DeCabooter.
“And he just didn't lend his name,” Korte said. “He was at every advocacy strategic meeting and very much a part of that preserve effort.”
In 2017, the Scottsdale City Council unanimously voted to name a future amphitheater at the Pima and Dynamite Trailhead after Dr. DeCabooter. Improvements to the trailhead, including the amphitheater, are currently in the design process with an anticipated completion in the summer of 2021.
Dr. DeCabooter’s civic service extended beyond Scottsdale’s borders.
Dr. DeCabooter also joined Bruner on the Board of Trustees of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.
Bruner said Dr. DeCabooter was a natural choice to join the board after another member passed away.
“Part of that was because of Art’s tremendous background in the community…but he also knew Virginia Piper personally from his roll (at SCC),” Bruner said. “Virginia was supportive of the things he did at the college and so they had a great personal relationship.”
Piper was not alone. Dr. DeCabooter developed positive relationships with many throughout his time in Scottsdale due, in large part, to his dedication to his community.
“He was a very kind and thoughtful real person and leaves a large void in our community,” Korte said.
Dr. DeCabooter is survived by his widow, Mary DeCabooter, three children and several grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held on Nov. 23 at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix.