Big Footprints

Tucsonan reflects on a life's work building structures and friendships.

Contractor Harold Ashton sees himself as one of the city's "little people." But after a lifetime of building major construction projects, the footprints he has left in Tucson are huge.

During World War II, Ashton entered the construction business with an acquaintance, then started The Ashton Company in 1946 out of his garage. The art of building, he told his wife, "was a matter of making connections, and it didn't matter if you used cloth or concrete."

The company began by constructing homes, soon branched into commercial work and eventually focused on projects made of concrete. The long list of local structures includes buildings for the Tucson Unified School District, Davis Monthan Air Force Base and 20 at the University of Arizona.

It is the expansion of the University's football stadium on both east and west sides of which Ashton is proudest. For the 1964 westside addition, he says, the concrete pieces were mostly fabricated on the ground and put in place in the air like an erector set.

Other local buildings the company built were City Hall, Trinity Church, the new Pima County Courthouse and part of El Con Mall. It also constructed 100 bridges, including the one on Swan Road over the Rillito Creek, along with water reservoirs, sewage treatment plants and the Sweetwater wetlands project for the City of Tucson.

While the company had a few run-ins with government officials along the way, it came out of these investigations clean. As Ashton says, "The main thing is that you must have a high level of integrity and be considerate of other people. But it's so easy to be honest. I can make more money honestly than any of the guys I ever knew made dishonestly."

Ashton is especially proud of the way people who work for his company are treated. His philosophy is, "We are in the teaching business here, not just driving nails and pouring concrete." Then he adds, "We've had the ability to find good people, train them well, pay them well and keep them happy."

Sitting in his unpretentious office, surrounded by family photos, a portrait of a dog and pictures of a few of the company's projects, Ashton said, "It's nice to see the progress of people. I'm more proud of the things we've done with people than with the buildings we've built."

Ashton's civic involvement has been wide. In 1962 he helped bring the award-winning Lilies of the Field to be filmed here, and the next year pushed for the Tucson location of the State Teaching Hospital while president of the Chamber of Commerce. He served on the Tucson Airport Authority, contributes substantial sums of money to various charities and a few years ago donated $1 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson.

Along the way to achieving business and personal success, Ashton has developed the friendships of remarkable people whom he remembers fondly. "Life is a lot of fun with those kind of acquaintances," he believes.

Ashton said one can't be in the construction business without liking growth. He has seen Tucson transformed from a community of 30,000 centered around downtown to a sprawling metropolis approaching one million people. Despite the change, he says, "There're not many places as nice as here."

Born Kerop Harold Ashjian in 1915 to immigrant Armenian parents, the family moved to Tucson 12 years later for his father's health. Young Harold was an average student who loved to tinker with machines. During his teen years he became something of a hot-rodder, which led to employment as a service station attendant and then manager.

Ashton married Mary Louise Sharman in 1938 and she convinced him to Americanize his family name. The couple had three children--Hal, Larry and Cindy.

After the death of his first wife, Ashton married Judy Beem in 1992 and they live in an innovative concrete home in the foothills. He still goes to work regularly as chairman of the board of the company which bears his name.

While slowed by medical problems, the 87-year-old Ashton has spent the last several years working with four contributors, including local historian Alex Kimmelman, on his recently published biography, Harold Ashton--Reflections of a Proud Family Patriarch, Gentleman & Master Builder.

After all the buildings he's constructed, charitable contributions he's made and the impact he's had on Tucson, in the end Ashton concludes in the book, "When I think of how I'd like to be remembered, the saying comes to mind: 'Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.'"

"I'd like to be remembered that way because I never in my whole life did anything to be ashamed of, or where I would be in a position of seeking to avoid someone. I can walk down the street in full confidence about anybody I ever met. To have a good reputation is really worth a lot."