the Historymakers Gala

From left, Merrill Mahaffey, Michael J. Fox, Art DeCabooter, Vernon Swaback, Betsey Bayless and Alfredo Gutierrez were all honored as Historymakers at the Historymakers Gala at the Arizona Biltmore on Feb. 23. (Ben Arnold/Special to the Progress)

At the Historical League’s 2019 Arizona Historymakers “Turquoise and Tuxedos” Gala Feb. 23 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, renowned architect and former Taliesin West Fellowship apprentice Vernon Swaback was halfway through his acceptance speech when he was cut off.

Half of the phones in the room went off and started chiming.

It was an amber alert.

Swaback paused and after a beat, said, “Mr. Wright, is that you?”

The reference to Frank Lloyd Wright reflected the gala’s tone: appreciative and thoughtful, yet humorous and light.

At times, sniffling could be heard by pockets of guests, particularly during Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West CEO Michael J. Fox’s speech, wherein he dedicated his award to his wife, Jean.

“No differently than other of the honorees tonight and many others of you who have been fortunate to make choices and to accomplish many of your goals by being a warrior, a person with chronic illness is a warrior, always and forever,” Fox said of his wife of 57 years. “Thank you, Jean, for being our family’s greatest warrior.”

Not only were the guests gathered to honor Arizona’s greatest contributors and figures, but the gala also happened to take place on the day of Arizona Biltmore’s 90th anniversary.

“I’d like to direct your attention to the front of the room, to the Biltmore Grand Opening Key,” said Mistress of Ceremonies and Emmy award-winning journalist, Carey Peña.

Shortly after presenting the key, Peña brought to the stage 2017 Historymaker honoree, Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., who led all guests in prayer before dinner was served.

“You created each of them in your image of likeness as well as instilled in them purpose, passion, productivity and perseverance. Our communities, cities and state and nation are better because of their unique contributions shared so willingly and often sacrificially,” Stewart said.

Betsey Bayless, who has served as Arizona secretary of state, Maricopa County Board supervisor, and president and CEO for Maricopa Integrated Health System, started her speech by thanking the sheer number of people who attended the gala to support her, including her family, her kindergarten friends and her Gammi Phi Beta sorority sisters.

“I certainly do not consider myself a Historymaker, but I can tell you the Historymakers are,” she said. “They are my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents who came to the stark Arizona territory and created a beautiful state that I love and enjoy today.”

Bayless told stories of her upbringing and leaned in for a moment to let the guests in on a fun fact about her grandfather, Lee Bayless.

“At one point, he was the elected game warden of Arizona, and he’s the one who threw the novelist Jack London out of Arizona for hunting out of season,” she said.

Former Scottsdale Community College President Dr. Art DeCabooter was introduced by 2014 Historymaker and civic leader, Jim Bruner.

 “Art is the epitome of leadership and is truly a Historymaker,” Bruner said.

DeCabooter’s son spoke on behalf of his father, who was in attendance.

“We’re honored to accept this prestigious award from the Arizona Historical League, a group that’s done so much to preserve Arizona’s story,” his son said.

Nationally recognized painter and icon within the Arizona and the Southwest arts scene, Merrill Mahaffey, gave a lighthearted speech thanking his wife, Jeanne.

“Well, what a surprise to meet you here,” he said.

“I want to thank first my wife for steering me along because I would get lost out in the woods somewhere if she hadn’t been there for calling me back home, and it always works,” Mahaffey said.

He continued, “I’m thrilled to see that we have a culture that’s still alive. We have a symphony, we have more than one museum. All of these things make it a good place to live. And, of course, I’m here because I can look out every day and see nature.”

Founder of Arizona State University’s Mexican-American Student Organization, Alfredo Gutierrez, also gave a speech that was equal parts inspirational and comical.

“I’m not dead,” he quipped. “It does feel a bit like an obituary, doesn’t it?”

Gutierrez ended his speech with one vital piece of advice.

“There’s so much more to be done,” he said. “There’s so much more that you have to change in this state, otherwise we just slide backwards. We just slide backwards. Standing still is sliding backwards. You have an obligation to move it forward. I have an obligation to move it forward, and I’m not dead, and I’m still fighting and I hope you are, too.”

One of the more powerful moments came from Fox’s speech, when he shared a quote from Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to lead the Cherokee nation in 1985.

“I am easily reminded of what [Mankiller] shared with me nearly 40 years ago about how Native Americans find the most responsible and effective leader: She said, ‘It is the leader who sees that most decisions of which are made are made on the impact of such a decision on the seventh generation out,’” Fox said.

“Such wisdom we have tried to incorporate in much of the decision making over these years within any institution I have been privileged to have been associated,” he added.

It’s a quote that resonated with many guests, including Historymakers Recognition Program Chair Diana Smith.

Smith stressed that while fundraising is important to the Arizona Historical League, the gala was, first and foremost, dedicated to celebrating Arizona history and heritage and the people who have made a difference in the state.

“Mike Fox said it so well in his remarks when he commented about the mentor, the Native American female leader who guided her followers with the seventh generation in mind,” Smith said.

“Of course, it is important we do not create a negative fund balance from the evening, but we strive to place all our focus on the Historymakers, their family and friends and the others who support them,” she added. “We trust all our attendees walked away with a better understanding of the multitude of ways these people contributed to Arizona.”