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Obituary

Former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup dead at 84

Bob Walkup, a former defense industry executive who found a second career as a popular three-term Republican mayor of Tucson, died Friday night. He was 84 years old, and had lung disease.

"Our city is better because of him," said Mayor Regina Romero.

After decades spent working on projects for a succession of military contracting giants through a parade of mergers — Fairchild-Republic's A-10 program, Hughes Aircraft's establishing missile production in Tucson, the Ames, Iowa native ran for mayor in 1999.

He won a three-way race, over Democrat Molly McKasson and car dealer Bob Beaudry, and then won again four years later, beating former Mayor Tom Volgy. In his third election, Democrats didn't field a candidate, and Walkup strolled to victory with 72 percent of the vote over a fringe Green Party candidate. Walkup left office after deciding not to run for a fourth term in 2011.

He championed Rio Nuevo's redevelopment of Downtown, worked to bring in federal funding for the Sun Link streetcar, pushed for the establishment of the Regional Transportation Authority, and with his wife Beth Walkup was a big booster of the arts while in office. They set up the Mayor's Arts Award, mixing buttoned-up political leaders and business honchos with eccentric artists and poets to raise money for Tucson's cultural organizations.

Walkup was once described as a "mayor from central casting" by Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican who sat on the Council with him for four years. The mayor could glad-hand with the best, and relished cutting ribbons and even donned a tower gray top hat to help usher in the first streetcar to roll through the rebuilt underpass on 4th Avenue.

Walkup was an engineering graduate of Iowa State University and a veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers who often found himself delving into the details of planning transportation improvements and the city's use of Central Arizona Project water. He pushed for environmental protection efforts, recognizing the threat of climate change early on.

His fiscal approach found the city adopting development fees, charging for trash collection and taking part in multiple attempts to set up taxes to fund transportation — ultimately successful in the 2006 RTA vote.

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Walkup enjoyed putting his engineering skills to work in a hands-on way, tinkering with old cars, whether they were capricious British imports or balky VW vans.

But his genial nature and widespread popularity meant he was more than an analyst — a quality that often brought together people who would otherwise be in different factions on issues.

"Bob was one of the most energetic and positive people I've ever met in my life," said Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors. "His 'can do' attitude led him to great success in his personal life and in politics. There was no one who worked harder at building and reviving our regional economy than Bob Walkup."

"There is no greater satisfaction in life than serving one's community and working for the common good," Walkup said in his final State of the City address in 2011. "But now Beth and I need to take care of our families and each other."

Walkup had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs, and had been in hospice at home.

His son, Jonathan Walkup, posted on Saturday morning that "I will cherish the memories of an amazing childhood. He was everything a dad could be and more."

Describing himself as "Bob Walkup's little boy," Jonathan said that "he was truly an inspiration and my hero. I will miss him greatly, but am so happy he is now able to reconnect and dance with Julia, my little sister and his beloved youngest daughter."

Mayor Romero said Saturday that Walkup "was a born statesman and always strived to create the best Tucson possible. Our city is better because of him."

"I had the privilege of serving alongside Mayor Walkup for four years on the City Council. When I was first elected in 2007, Bob was nothing but gracious and approachable, and I still consider him a mentor to this day," she said. "His leadership on issues ranging from economic development, water security, and transportation positioned Tucson for a strong recovery out of the Great Recession. He always had a vision to create a lively, bustling downtown for Tucsonans to eat, work, live, and play."

"I will truly miss Bob for his kind demeanor, his friendship and advice, and his everlasting vision to create the best Tucson possible," Romero said.

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"For evidence of Bob's ability to build consensus and bring people together to solve difficult problems look no further than the fact that he was a three-term Republican Mayor in a Democratic-majority city," Chair Bronson said. "He was my friend and colleague and he will be missed."

Councilman Paul Cunningham said that Walkup "was a conscientious and caring public servant, and far more importantly a good friend to many of us."

Robert E. Walkup is survived by his wife Beth, whom he met in the mid-1990s when she was the director of the Tucson Children's Museum. He is survived by children Holly Walkup Carter and Jonathan Walkup, stepdaughter Stacy Timmons, and numerous grandchildren, as well as ex-wife Janet Walkup. Daughter Julia Walkup Middleton died of cancer in 2007 at age 39.

Services have not yet been set.

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Mar 13, 2021, 9:14 pm
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In addition to never shying away from having a word with a reporter, Bob and Beth were tremendously helpful and encouraging when I was involved in the theatre way back when — graciously acting as the hosts of a benefit when we were working to rehab a space Downtown, and always making themselves available to talk about how to make our city center a vital, bustling space. RIP, Bob. Here’s hoping heaven has some wrenches and a uncooperative carburetor that requires a deft touch.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Walkup taking the inaugural ride on Tucson's Sun Link streetcar in July 2014, with RTA head Farhad Moghimi and then-Councilwoman Regina Romero.