What Hugh Holub taught me
I knew the legend of Hugh Holub before I ever met the man.
My mother was at the University of Arizona at the same time he was, and in those days it was difficult to be on campus and not be familiar with Hugh or his handiwork. He was responsible for an irregularly published tabloid called "The Frumious Bandersnatch" which somehow found distribution on campus despite the best efforts of the university administration, who were sufficiently annoyed by its editorial stance that they actually tried to shut the paper down.
Over twenty years later, when I was a student there, the Bandersnatch made a brief, and, I suspect, unauthorized, re-appearance on campus ahead of the 1988 homecoming.
The satire was, at times, overly clever. For example, it was printed on yellow paper. Get it? When I asked my mother for the story about it, I got to hear about the days when the folks in charge actually considered such humor dangerous. The real joke was that this laughable paranoia was what, in itself, gave the Bandersnatch its power.
The stuffed suits deflated by the Bandersnatch are now largely forgotten, except for the buildings named after them on campus.
Hugh and the band of left-leaning non-conformists with whom he associated on campus, however, would go on to tinker with Tucson in an effort to reshape it in their image over the next few decades. Only in a city as strange as ours could such a band of rebels achieve professional respectability and political prominence. Thank God.
A note of clarification: I said "left-leaning." Actually, like many Tucsonans of his generation, Hugh's politics were all over the place.
My understanding is that it was in the pages of the Bandersnatch that the idea of "Baja Arizona" first made its appearance.
Many of us found out about it many years later, during the brief administration of Gov. Evan Mecham, who was elected under a conspiracy of unfortunate circumstances despite almost entirely losing the vote in Southern Arizona. Mecham's brand of paranoid, ignorant and bigoted politics would pass for mainstream in the current era of Bachmann, Brewer and Antenori, but in those immediate post-Babbitt years, we still had higher standards.
Hugh told us what we already knew, namely that Tucson and Southern Arizona was not only different from the lands north of the Gila River in terms of attitude and culture, but also that we were a region that had produced distinguished political leadership that stood for reason and decency.
Hugh specifically cited Mo Udall and Jim Kolbe, our congressional delegation at the time, as a contrast to the mediocre hackery produced by Phoenix. By coining the name "Baja Arizona," he gave our sentiments a name. No one at that point was actually arguing for secession, instead, in his words, Baja Arizona was "a state of mind."
The Mecham disaster, and the circus that spun from it, inspired Hugh to revive the Baja Arizona idea with an op-ed piece and a printing of "Free Baja Arizona" bumper stickers. I still have mine. It was fixed to the door of my office at the legislature, where it inspired some strange responses from Phoenix suit-wearing types. The idea of Southern Arizona having its own identity was entirely foreign to people whose geography extended little past Baseline Road.
I got to meet Hugh for the first time in 1996, when I was working on an abortive and, in retrospect, ill-advised campaign for the Legislature by the then-mayor of Nogales. I accompanied the two of them as they drove to Phoenix for a meeting of the Central Arizona Project Board. He was there because he was working for the city in one capacity or another at the time, and the border town's allocation from the CAP was in jeopardy. He spoke on behalf of his client, but the board called him up to the podium for other items on the agenda as well, so they could ask him about a few technical items that eluded their staff.
Of course, the trip back and forth to the Valley of the Yakes meant that I got to spend four hours in a car with a fellow whose work I had admired for years. This was a special treat for a 26-year-old eager to pursue a career in public policy. Hugh spent the drive expounding on all manner of history and scuttlebutt: Marana's annexation policies, why it was easier to work with people in Cochise County than those in Avra Valley, the truth about Senator Hayden's health during his last term, and, of course, water.
Hugh was on Congressman Udall's staff during the late 1960s as the CAP was being hammered out, a formative experience that began a long career of involvement in water management policy in Arizona. He bragged that he had been a "fly on the wall" during some of the most important discussions and could write a book about it if he really wanted to.
Hugh had an understanding of the historical depth of these issues that is, unfortunately, all too rare in an Arizona which is increasingly transient and suburban. Once, I told him about an article I had read that mentioned a case the O'odham at San Xavier had brought against the Presidio of Tucson over water issues in the Spanish courts back in the 18th century, but never said how it was resolved.
"It is interesting that you mentioned that." he said. "We cited that case in a settlement hearing last week."
It would be an exaggeration to say that Hugh taught me everything I know. However, it would be perfectly fair to say that what he said made a lot of things make more sense. It was difficult to sit in the Legislature as we argued about water policy and not think about his "10 Water Laws of the West", a brief, sarcastic primer on how water management works, and always has worked, in this part of the world.
Once, when a legislator got up and waxed ignorant not only about the particulars about water law, but also about the basic geology of groundwater, I was able to dig up some of what Hugh had shared with us on the Internet to refute what had been said. I think I quoted Hugh a dozen times in caucus, committee or the floor, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not. We should all be thankful that Hugh was so generous with his knowledge and wisdom.
Though we regularly corresponded on the Internet, the last time I actually saw Hugh was well over a year ago when I ran into him in Tubac. I was with a friend who was working on some conservation issues in the area and I introduced the two of them. Hugh repeatedly stabbed at a map with his finger to punctuate an explanation of the interactions of constituency and geography involved in the issue.
He did not discuss the facts. We all knew the facts, and he knew that we all knew, but he understood something that the rest of us usually fail to appreciate, namely that having the truth on your side is usually not enough, and that in every political argument there are other dynamics that need to be considered.
Hugh had a hand in most of the advances that we have made with regard to water management over the last few decades. He also stuck around long enough to see most of these initiatives co-opted or undermined. This fact did not seem to frustrate him. He understood that public policy was always a work in progress, and that nothing is ever really finished. This may be why he never really retired.
A reminder of these harsh truths came the morning of Hugh's passing. Monday's Star ran a front-page story about the effort by local developers to reverse efforts to conserve our groundwater. I think that Hugh would have appreciated the chance to weigh in on this, and we all could have benefitted from what he would have had to say. Fighting for these things is now up to those of us with whom he shared his wisdom.