The Mayor of Fourth Avenue

Remembering the life of businessman, politician, Irishman and bohemian Mike Haggerty

An afternoon calm falls across the backyard of a modest home on East Waverly Street. Only sporadic footsteps are heard from within a yellow school bus, circa 1952. Faded, peeling and somehow glorious, the huge machine rises like a challenge just beyond the low fence. A single gate in that fence leads to its beckoning door.

This school bus has not budged for decades. Yet even in its immobility, the old machine has provided shelter for kids and grandkids, for activists and for political frontiersmen seeking something that resembles justice.

The bus is a testament to the notion that the course of our lives is not preordained, that true freedom isn't something given, but something to be seized. It is the freedom to imagine.

That's why we're now pondering the vintage rig, which originated in a school district in Sacramento, Calif., and rumbled into Tucson by way of San Francisco, Nevada, Phoenix, Mexico and Belize. And it is why we're talking about the man who once tacked its course—who ignited the huge engine with the fuel of adventure, and showed us all how life could be lived if we possessed the courage to follow.

Michael Pickett Haggerty died March 5 at age 81 after a tough fight with cancer. He was a former city councilman, a longtime business owner, one-time head of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, and someone known, even by his critics, for his unquestioned integrity.

Mike was a relentless crusader for a free Ireland, and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. He was a dedicated family man who interpreted that term broadly; in 1994, when six Irishmen were tried in a Tucson federal court for allegedly trying to ship weapons to their homeland, Mike and his wife, Mimi, offered very public support. An acquaintance of the so-called "Tucson Six" lived briefly in the bus. These things drew the FBI's earnest attention; along with other Tucson activists, Mike and Mimi Haggerty fell under intense surveillance.

He was a founder of Tucson's St. Patrick's Day Parade, and this year's grand marshal, though he did not live long enough to attend.

Today, I'm in that bus with Mike's widow and their daughter, Shannon Harrison. You see, to complete the story, we simply had to get onboard. They explain that in 1972, during the heady and fearless days of the counterculture revolution, Mike Haggerty quit his advertising job, sold their house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, loaded his family members onto the bus, and hauled them to Mexico. They spent nine months cruising that country's highways and village streets, all the way to Belize and back again.

It's widely agreed that this was one of the best times of their lives.

Eventually, the bus returned them to the United States and, finally, to Tucson. Not long after, they started a business.

The Haggertys joined with another family to buy the house on Waverly Street, in a working-class neighborhood then called Sugar Hill. Their shop, Piney Hollow, operated for 37 years, most of them on North Fourth Avenue. The shop was a perpetual menagerie of family and friends. Together, they made jewelry, and everyone eventually learned beadwork.

They were also offering lessons in how to live, for those who chose to ride along. Their bohemian lifestyle was not for everyone. But all were free to choose the pieces that fit.

To longtime friends and extended "family" like Adrienne Halpert, those pieces still fit today.

"They were modern pioneers," says Halpert, owner of the Global Arts Gallery in Patagonia, and a former administrator with the Tucson Arts District Partnership.

In 1970, she wandered from New York City to California, and spent a year living with the Haggerty family. "That's where I learned about organics and recycling and being a responsible, honest human being," she says. "And that's before it was trendy. They chose the small-footprint life."

Today, Mimi and Shannon sit on a couch in the bus, opposite a row of fold-down bunks. To the front is the captain's chair, cast in the shadows of an overhanging mesquite. For two hours, we've been talking amid the rig's hand-built cabinets and dusty kitchen, and the conversation has shifted to low gear.

Mimi describes how Mike grew up in Portland, Ore., chafing at the conventional expectations of his parents.

"There were things he knew he needed to do," she says. "He took his own path. We had a great life, even though there were sticky moments. If we hadn't done some of those things—if we had done what was expected of us all the time—it would have been boring."

But dull, it most definitely was not. Mike and Mimi were together for 60 years. He devoured history, and wrote fiction drenched in mythology. They had five kids, and a clutch of grandkids. And they still have the funky house in the neighborhood once known as Sugar Hill, with the bus parked out back.

By the time I came to relish Fourth Avenue's unorthodox charms, its hippie entrepreneurs were settling into middle age, and Piney Hollow had become an institution. Perched on the corner of Fifth Street, the shop was a spectacle of earthy opulence—handmade jewelry shimmered from every corner, and at least one artist was always working inside.

Back in the early and hazy 1980s, I was bartending at a homey pub three or four doors north called Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. The bar was aptly Celtic—at least in name—and early evenings sometimes found Mike Haggerty bellying up for the leisurely refuge of Jameson Irish Whiskey. He was understated and affable, a big man without seeming so. Never did his visits pass without a half-dozen folks squeezing up alongside for a quick word, or a chummy pat on the back.

A few years later, Mike, Mimi and Shannon moved Piney Hollow two blocks south. At the new shop, there was always a daintily painted bench out front. You'd usually find Mike on that bench, indulging in a smoke and chatting with folks moving along the avenue.

One day around 1990, a young woman who'd bounced across the globe as a Foreign Service brat walked into Piney Hollow.

"I had lived all over the world, then I came to Tucson, and it was not so cosmopolitan," says Leslie Cho Newman. "But when I went into Piney Hollow to look around, there were these traders from all over the world, and these beads from all over the world. For me, it was a synthesis of who I had been and where I was now. The whole thing made me feel at home. I had never lived in the U.S., but now I had a place here."

Soon, Newman began to make jewelry for the shop. "Mike introduced me to the history of beads," she says, "and I have been a jeweler ever since. That remains one of my main interests and art forms. They only hired me because I was interested."

And 22 years after breezing through that door, she's now family, too. "They have that special spirit," she says of Mike and Mimi, "and they've passed it on to all of their kids."

In a newspaper account after his death, Molly McKasson, a former colleague on the City Council, said Mike "was like the mayor of Fourth Avenue."

A few days after he died, his daughter Shannon came across friends at the Tucson Racquet Club. "They said, 'Your dad was the first person I met when I came to town,'" Shannon says. "I bet he was the first person a lot of people met when they came to town."

There were controversies, too, and Mike Haggerty was hardly shy about wading into them. Perhaps the most caustic occurred during his single term on the Tucson City Council. It began in 1991 when he was picked to fill a vacancy left by George Miller, who had quit to run for mayor.

Mike came to the council with a potent little secret: He would not run for election when the term ended. That left him free to follow his conscience, says his former chief of staff, Scott Egan. As a result, Mike, a Democrat, was instrumental in ousting both the city manager and the fire chief in 1992, after they failed to report badly leaking underground fuel tanks at the city's southside Thomas O. Price Service Center. It was a nasty and divisive fight, with Mayor Miller calling for an investigation of four council members who met outside of regular meetings to discuss the issue. Mike Haggerty was among them.

The investigation fizzled. But for Egan, it was a triumph he hadn't even thought of glimpsing up close. He'd already retired as an aide to then-Councilman Bruce Wheeler, pledging to quit politics for good. Those plans were soon upended. "Mike called me," Egan recalls. "He said, 'I'm kind of having a hard time here. Would you be willing to come back and kind of help me out?'"

Egan hesitated, even with this call from a close friend. Then Mike told him of his very secret, one-term strategy. "At that point, I thought, 'Wow,'" Egan says. "That means we can have fun. If we don't have to work on a campaign, and we don't have to kiss anybody's ass, we can just go in there and do what we think is right.

"And we did some amazing shit. We fired a city manager. We fired a very well-connected fire chief; we exposed the underground storage-tank leaks at the Price Service Center. Mike really shook things up. He was the gentlest of men. But he was very firm in his beliefs."

All of that from a person who said he had no interest in being a politician.

"I think what made Mike so adept, other than having an incredibly charming personality, was that he was the kind of guy who was very clear where he stood ideologically on things," says Egan. "But at the same time, even though he had very strong opinions, he also had a very open mind. Part of that may have been from running a small business, and having to deal with a lot of different people who come in with a lot of different issues. You try to accommodate them.

"Even his political adversaries said to me, at the end, what a gentlemen he was to work with."

Mike "was wonderful on the City Council," says McKasson, who represented Ward 6 at the time. "He was a breath of fresh air, and brought the maturity that we needed sometimes."

He was also an independent thinker. "It wasn't that you could always just count on his vote," McKasson says. "He was a mature person who'd lived a life as a businessman, and he was a free spirit. One of the things about Mike was that he brought this passion for free enterprise to the City Council. He really believed in a free-market system."

There were other colorful run-ins, such as a scuffle with radio-host John C. Scott. That occurred after Haggerty made a suggestion—quickly withdrawn—to limit the number of wholesalers at the city's annual gem-and-mineral shows. He hoped to stanch the sale of jewelry to the public at prices meant for other licensed wholesalers. Mike thought the practice gave the wholesalers an unfair advantage over local merchants.

Scott quickly pounced, accusing Haggerty on-air of simply protecting his own self-interests as a jeweler. The response was a lawsuit. "No one has the right to defame another person's reputation with slanderous lies," Mike told the Arizona Daily Star. "That's why we have libel laws."

In documents from the lawsuit, Scott is reported to have accused Mike of having "absolutely" rolled up "the welcome mat for this fabulous gem show that pumps $28 million into this community.

"And I will tell you flat out, if Haggerty denies he did this, he is a liar." Scott's tirade continued. "A damn liar. It was Michael Haggerty, the vice mayor of Tucson, who has attempted almost single-handedly to cloud this fabulous infusion of money into our economy."

Haggerty later agreed to drop the lawsuit if Scott would apologize over the airwaves. Scott grudgingly agreed to do so; "I'm not thrilled," he told reporters.

Egan says the whole dust-up ended with a dose of humor. "Mike said, 'Good, I want an apology, and I want it three times a day for three months.' It was hysterical."

Scott now has a talk show on KVOI AM 1030. Contacted by phone, he says Haggerty's lawsuit forced him to reconsider his broadcasting boundaries.

"So he really did me a favor, even though it was kind of a nightmare at the time. And I always admired Haggerty, not only with his Irish patriotism—which was pretty courageous at the time—but I felt a great respect for him. I think he was a pretty remarkable guy."

During his short council stint, Mike helped create the city's Small Business Commission and boosted the Community Betterment Program, aimed at mitigating neighborhood problems. He also championed affordable-housing programs and sponsored the creation of an affordable-housing task force.

"I see politicians in four classifications: wannabees, power hunters, ideologues, and Dudley Do-rights. Of the four, I would rather be classified a Dudley Do-right, even though that is certainly the most vulnerable, because the mechanism for defense is not as developed as in the other divisions. Vaclav Havel has said that, "Not being bound by a love of power, I am essentially freer than those who cling to their positions."

—Memo to staff, when Mike Haggerty announced that he wouldn't run for election.

In 1994, Arizona garnered national headlines when the so-called "Tucson Six" went on trial in federal court. The men were accused of trying to buy a small arsenal, including nearly 3,000 mining detonators, for the Irish Republican Army. Five of them faced the possibility of decades behind bars. Jurors listened to more than 150 witnesses, heard some two-dozen wiretapped conversations, and saw 1,200 pieces of evidence.

There was a lot of speculation that Tucson had been picked as a trial venue to avoid massive crowds that might turn up in Irish-American population centers such as Boston or New York. But the feds may have underestimated the show of support in Tucson, Egan says.

"They thought, 'Tucson? Who gives a damn about Tucson? We'll put it out there.' And they were shocked to find out that a lot of people in Tucson were strong in their support" of the suspected IRA sympathizers.

Egan and Haggerty were among the first to see the prisoners. "I called the federal correctional institute out on Wilmot Road," Egan says, "as chief of staff for the vice mayor of Tucson, which Mike was at the time. I said, 'The vice mayor would like to see these six gentlemen you have in there.'

"The men had no idea why the hell the vice mayor wanted to meet with them. So when they came out, the first thing Mike said to them was, 'Tiocfaidh ár lá.'"

That's a Gaelic slogan meaning, "Our day will come."

"And they immediately knew they were friends," Egan says. "It was a very tense time. The feds were breathing down our necks. I had harassment from the FBI. Everybody who was in favor of peace in Ireland and (getting) the Brits out of the north were under a microscope.

"Mike and Mimi gave those guys 100 percent support. In fact, some of the guys, when we got them out on bail, they stayed at Mike and Mimi's place. Once again, Mike was a soft and fuzzy guy. But he was absolutely, 100 percent committed to protecting the rights of minorities in general, and the Tucson Six in this case."

In April of that year, the Tucson Six were acquitted on all charges. "Of course, that was a source of pride," Egan says.

Mimi Haggerty remembers an edgy stretch as well, though she says that only one of the Tucson Six bunked in the bus.

"We needed to be cautious. We went to so many court dates. But I was impressed by all of the people who were supportive. The authorities were really surprised by that, too.

"It was so exciting when they all got acquitted. We really celebrated."

As a kid, Mike Haggerty spent a year on his grandfather's ranch in High Valley, Ore. The ranch was called Piney Hollow. "Mike's memories of being in High Valley were so intense," Mimi says. "He and his sister rode a horse to the one-room school. That whole year was like a magic time in his life. It was very formative."

Later, he got a job in a pea-canning factory. That was formative, too: For the rest of his life, says Mimi, he hated canned peas. The next year, he worked on a salmon trap in eastern Alaska.

After graduating from college in 1954, Mike and Mimi moved to Stockton, Calif., where he taught school for a year. After that, he was hired as a field representative for the Oregon Historical Society. The family lived on two rural acres with an orchard and a vineyard. Mike loved to garden.

"They were growing babies and plants," Shannon says with a smile.

But life was not always smooth, especially when money was tight. "Mike chose his own path," Mimi says. "And there were times in Portland when it was kind of tough for us."

Later, Mike worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, canvassing downtown Portland, where all the hippie-gypsies mingled. His next stop was a gig as the Northwest representative for an advertising agency. He handled the accounts for Plymouth and Chrysler. Two years later, in the rush of the 1960s, he was transferred to San Francisco.

"It was culture shock," Mimi says. They built an oceanside house in the Bay Area community of Pacifica and settled down for nearly a decade.

Shannon remembers when her dad would take his kids on client calls. The lucky kid for that day would get a ride in Mike's black MG sports car. "Cruising down the highway in California in a sports car," she says. "That was great."

Mike and a friend started a business called Mind Reels. Their concept was to sell films from concert light shows that could be played in a continuous loop at home. They were on the verge of a solid investment when video technology suddenly emerged, single-handedly crushing their dreams.

"That was heartbreaking," Mimi says. "Right at the end of the negotiations, it fell apart."

In retrospect, perhaps, it was also a bit of providence.

"Mike and I were talking about selling the house," Mimi says. "And he said, 'You know what I'd love to do? I'd love to get a bus and travel.' So one day, he was driving down Gough Street in San Francisco, and tucked away between two buildings is this bus. He looks into it and finds out it had been used by a band called Sopwith Camel that did a cross-country thing in the bus. We paid about $2,500 for it. We had a friend who was a carpenter, and we pulled the bus in front of his house.

"I used to tell people that we moved from a six-bedroom home into a one-bedroom bus."

Says Shannon, "All of our friends were really jealous, because everybody was tired of the corporate life and their steady jobs, and there was this new awareness."

Says Mimi, "The trip to Mexico was the best thing we ever did. The first day of spring in Pacifica, we broke a bottle of champagne over the front of the bus."

Many years later, Shannon made a pilgrimage back to Pacifica. "And everybody wondered what had happened to that hippie family," she says.

They eventually returned from Mexico with jars of opals. After choosing to live in Tucson because they had friends here, they met people at Reid Park who made jewelry. "We traded off working for them," Shannon says. "My sister stole my opal out of the jewelry box, made me a piece for my birthday, and that was the first jewelry from Piney Hollow."

The family later worked for a man on Sixth Street who wanted to start a silversmithing operation. "He was looking for someone to teach him silversmithing," Mimi says. The man shelled out $500 for their equipment. "Within four months we had paid him back and bought him out. And Piney Hollow was born."

The bus is silent now, the windows empty, its driver summarily dispatched.

A new adventure beckons. And Mike Haggerty never could resist adventure.

We will miss him.

"I remember the wild grasses and flowers of the high plateaus, the harsh winter with bitter cold winds from the mountains, the Maze Dance and the gathering of the clans at the beginning of spring. I remember our summer wanderings, which followed the horses from the lower steppes to the valleys at the edge of the spirit forest ..."

—From Poseidon, by Mike Haggerty

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