Jimmie Kerr came to Casa Grande in the early 1930s and grew up in this community. His legacy as a public servant—as City Councilman, Mayor twice, and county supervisor (commissioner) for more than forty years--make him unique in Pinal county. In this interview he describes how small town life, and the turbulent times through which he has lived, helped him to become the man a local legend. In 2002, upon his retirement, a portion of Arizona State Highway 238 (the Gila Bend Highway) was renamed Jimmie Kerr Boulevard in his honor.
Date of Interview: March 27, 2004
Interviewer: Camilla Claeys
Transcriber: Merrilyn S. Ridgeway
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
The Kerrs Leave the Midwest for Arizona
Camilla: Jimmie, you were born in Tucson on April 20, 1934 and came to Casa Grande as a toddler. Would you describe some of your earliest memories of the town?
Jimmie: I was born in Tucson. My parents came to Tucson for my mother’s health. She had been treated for arthritis both in Kansas where she was from and in Lincoln, Nebraska where they lived before they came to Arizona. The arthritis treatments didn’t seem to work so a dry climate, Arizona, was suggested. My Dad bought a cleaners in Tucson and they made the move but my mother continued to have problems. My Dad owned the dry cleaning business in Tucson from 1928 to 1939 but my mother died in 1935 when I was 15 months old. When she died, they requested that my Dad have an autopsy. She actually died from colitis, which they didn’t know much about then, I guess. They certainly hadn’t been treating her for that.
Jimmie Comes to Casa Grande in 1939
After she died, my Dad decided to come to a smaller community since he was going to be a single parent. I would guess Casa Grande was about 1,500 people at that time, 1939. Tucson was smaller than it is today, too, but it was a lot bigger community. My Dad rented Dr. Reddin’s house down on Dry Lake Street. The house is still there. When we first came here there were very few paved streets. The Main Street area was along the railroad tracks. There are still a number of buildings there. It was the Florence Boulevard of that time. It was paved and so were Florence Street and Sacaton Street as I remember. The business community sort of stopped at Second Street, although Florence Street had the Paramount Theater and where Carlton’s is was Martin’s Drug Store. There was also another drug store on the corner of Main and Florence Street. It was a two story. There were several two story buildings down there. Some people lived upstairs but there were also professional offices. When I was 5, the dentist was upstairs there. Downstairs Serrano’s had The Popular Store which was a full mercantile store. As you progressed westward there were Mexican and Chinese restaurants, several bars, a jewelry store—that building is still there—it was Briggs Jewelry Store. As you went down Florence Street toward the Paramount, going north, Mr. Thornton had a jewelry store at the corner of First and Florence Streets. There were flourishing businesses.
Camilla: Do you remember the Don Market?
Jimmie: I don’t remember the one that was downtown before they built the new one. I know they were down there but I don’t remember that. Across the street from Mr. Thornton there was a furniture store that Ed Goff, that’s Rod Goff’s Dad (Rod’s a retired person and still lives here), had. And upstairs there were apartments that you came into from First Street.
There were other businesses but I don’t remember what all along the west side of the road. I do remember there was a bank owned by W.P. Clemens, the only bank I recall in the early years, where the Pioneer Market was later on. I think Kirk McCarville’s got his real estate business there and owns that building now. Against Abuse is on the back side of that. Clemens was later bought out by Valley Bank. His grandson, Bobby (Robert) Clements, went through all twelve years of school here in Casa Grande. He lives in Arizona City now. He and I were friends all through elementary and high school and we roomed together for two years at ASU. We have a lifelong friendship. In the later years, F.T. Rainey had a real estate and insurance business in that area.
As I said, there weren’t too many paved streets. Growing up with it, you didn’t think a lot about it. You were used to it. But in the Spring and Summer we used to have real bad windstorms with heavy, heavy dust. It wasn’t unusual for it to blow some windows out. I don’t know why, but I thought it was probably because—even if the wind was more intense—there wasn’t the pavement you have today.
You were fortunate if you had a cooler. They were coming on at that time. But we used to sleep outside. A lot of people had screened-in porches but we didn’t. You’d sleep on a cot and you’d hose down the cot and the sheet and, as the water evaporated at night, that was your cooler. In today’s world, you’d probably be scared to be outside all night but in those days you didn’t lock your doors and, if you did, it was a skeleton key. (Laughter.) Everybody had the same key. The community was small and very friendly.
Central School was where the Arizona Bank Plaza is now. Mr. [Donovan] Kramer, [Sr.} owns that property behind The Dispatch where Congressman [Rick Renzi] has his office and where Southwest Gas is.
The Early Years—School, Work and Loneliness
Camilla: And that was the main elementary school?
Jimmie: Yes, it was. You went there for first through fourth grade, the only first through fourth grade in town. There was no kindergarten. Then you went to South School, which is called Ocotillo now, out on south Florence Street/Chui Chu Highway. That was where you went fifth through the eighth grade. Then you went on to the high school. I went to Central School for four years, South School for four years, and high school for four years.
Camilla: Was there segregation at that point?
Jimmie: Yes, there was. To tell you the truth, the one over by Ocotillo must have had but I wasn’t aware of it at Central School. I guess there weren’t any Blacks enrolled at Central so I didn’t realize any difference. As there is today, there were lots of Hispanics. One thing I remember in regard to Hispanics was that, if they couldn’t speak English when they entered school, a lot of them got carried over an extra year early on, like at second grade. They had to have some kind of proficiency. A lot of our classmates ended up having to repeat the second or the third grade.
But segregation was still practiced. When I realized that was happening was when I went to South School. Mr. Dallis and his wife, the teachers at the segregated school, were across the South School playground on the southwest side. They were the only teachers there that I remember. In later years Essie White was a teacher over there, I think.
Camilla: The Black children were in some parts of the school and the whites in the other part? Were they actually integrated in the classrooms at all?
Jimmie: No, they weren’t at that time. They had their own building, the one that’s now at the Historical Society, and it was across the playground. Segregation was alive and going strong in those days. But it wasn’t by the time I went to high school. By then the high school was integrated. There was no segregation there. I never saw any problems or that blacks were treated any different from anyone else. But at the lower schools, generally speaking, Blacks were on the other side of the fence. We used to play them in sports and sometimes P.E. would be commingled, but otherwise, no.
I started to work delivering newspapers when I was a youngster. I probably started at 6-7 years old. I had a morning and evening paper out of Phoenix. The Republic was still in existence as a morning paper. The afternoon paper was The Phoenix Gazette. Several guys threw papers. You’d ride your bicycle and throw the paper. Each of us had a district and we went out and asked people to subscribe. Every week you’d go and collect money for payment. I threw newspapers both morning and afternoon until I was 12 years old.
We got those papers at the train station. The papers were always coated over with old newspaper and wrapped with wire. You would get them at 4-5 o’clock in the morning and it was pretty cool in the winter time so you’d get under the cover where it was warmer and take the old wrapping and wire and throw them up on the roof of the train station. The station master, Pappy Guinn, would come out and get after us, every once in a while, and we’d all get up there and clean it off. Then, after a period of time, we’d do it again and he’d be after us again.
After World War II we got the papers at the Greyhound Bus Station which was down on Main Street. Immediately east, on the south side of Main Street, was a huge black water tank for the railroad. Just beyond that was the Greyhound Bus Station. Then we’d go across the street to the Chinese restaurant called the Owl Café to eat doughnuts. We’d fold the papers up and put them into a big canvas bag on the handlebars of our bikes and we’d sail those papers into the yards.
When I got to be twelve I went to work for Long Enterprises which owned the theaters here and for the local manager, Henry Bowers. I think he probably owned a percentage of the business but the lion’s share was owned by a fellow by the name of Louis Long out of Safford. Movie theaters were the main entertainment not only here but throughout the state and the nation, too. It cost a dime to go to a movie in those days. The Chief Theater was on Main Street. It was open four days a week, Friday-Monday. It was very convenient for me while I was in school as a youngster. I continued to work at The Chief until I graduated from high school. I started as a ticket taker and an usher—in those days they’d take you in with a flashlight and help you find a seat. Sometimes I sold popcorn, candy or pop. On Friday and Saturday we used to run Mexican movies. Sunday and Monday was American movies in English.
After World War II, Casa Grande was really booming. People were leveling land. There’d been a big demand for cotton during the war, but after the war a lot of the service guys were coming back home and people were going out and taking the desert areas, putting a drag behind them and just dragging them off. They’d found that if you put some water on the desert, it just grows fantastic! And the price of cotton was good. We used to have the migrant workers come in because of the cotton. The town would swell to double or triple the normal size which would have been about 3-4,000 people by 1946. I’m not sure. We had a lot of businesses start here because of the migrant workers. Let’s say there were 8 or 9,000 people here during picking time so there was a need for more businesses to service them. There were 323 seats in The Chief Theater and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons we’d have a line to go into the theater and we would see all 323 seats filled up. Then, when it was over, we’d open the exit doors on the back as well as the front and get everybody out and we’d lock it back up and we’d already pre-sold the people waiting outside.
Camilla: Oh, my. You did it twice each day!
Jimmie: It’s hard to believe but Stanfield had a theater, too. Mr. Long put a theater there that was probably 6-700 seats. Most of the migrants lived out on the farms and Stanfield was right in the middle of it.
Camilla: You’ve had a long career of being very active—even as a young man.
Jimmie: Yes. I grew up fast and I needed to work for any extras. My Dad provided the basics. I was raised in a man’s world. My Dad was single and he was a heavy drinker. He liked women, chased women, and he loved to gamble. So, I grew up in a little different world—I certainly wasn’t sheltered. But I wasn’t abused, either. My Dad never beat up on me. There was always food. If I wanted more than two shirts, I needed to work for whatever extras I wanted.
At The Chief I just worked four days a week. Later on I was transferred to The Paramount. Then, through most of my high school time, I worked 44 hours per week at night and on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday we had matinees. There was a confectionary on the north side which was a hamburger stand, not freestanding, on the north side.
Many of my friends’ mothers coddled me. I guess they thought, “Poor little redhaired boy. He has no mother.” I had two cowlicks in the front. (Laughter.) I had a teacher in the fourth grade, Mrs. Owens, who liked to pull hair. I guess I was a jibber-jabber because she would have me sitting at a desk right up by her. She’d reach over and pull my hair. So I started getting crewcuts. I wore crewcuts all my life when I had hair.
Dad’s Remarriage and Divorce Bring Change
My Dad remarried for about two years when I was maybe 6-8 years old. It didn’t last. She had two children of her own and he had me. There were always arguments about the kids. When he married her we were living on Dry Lake Street in Dr. Reddin’s house. When she left she took everything including pictures of my mother, and others, which I never got back. In later years, my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side replaced some of those. My Dad’s and her wedding invitation and marriage picture, things like this.
After they separated, we moved into the San Carlos Hotel. My Dad and I lived in room number 4 for a year. We ate in restaurants most of the time I was growing up. Occasionally my Dad would cook, but generally I ate in restaurants all my life until I got married. (Laughter.) At college I ate in the cafeteria. In the Air Force I ate in the dining halls. It made me very spoiled. I like certain things and that’s what I eat. I’m not adventuresome. My wife tells me its boring to cook for me because I eat the same thing day after day.
So my Dad and I lived in the hotel. In those days, The Wonder Bar—which is still in existence—was not on Second Street where it is today. It was in the downstairs of The San Carlos Hotel on the south end. My Dad was a frequenter of The Wonder Bar. I’d come down and check on him or talk him into coming up to bed or pester him for money so I could go eat. I used to be down in The Wonder Bar a lot more often than I should have been even though I wasn’t drinking. (Laughter.)
At the San Carlos there was a small restaurant that later was a tap room. On the extreme north portion of the hotel was an Indian curio shop. Doc Herrin and his lady friend, Mrs. Lavers—I always thought they were man and wife and maybe they were but they had officially different names. In today’s world that isn’t uncommon but back then it was. They had a quite nice, large Indian curio store.
The Wonder Bar was a wild and wooly place. It wasn’t unusual for someone to come inside on a horse during the war years. The old Wonder Bar was owned by the McNatt’s, another old pioneer family. Carr McNatt owned the old bar. After his son Mickey came back from the service in the late ‘40’s he and his wife, Virginia, built the new Wonder Bar on Second Street. In the old days, people would wager bets at The Wonder Bar on who could outrun the horses that were ridden into the bar. Some of that wildness, I hear, has followed over to the new Wonder Bar. Mickey’s been gone for many years but his widow, Virginia, passed away recently.
Across the parking lot to the east of the San Carlos Hotel was another curio shop owned by a guy called Apache Jack who had been a barber here in Casa Grande. He and his wife, Beulah Williams, lived behind the shop. Mrs. Williams was a school teacher here for years. She was my 8th grade teacher. They were a nice couple who didn’t have any children. In later years, when he was semi-retired and out of the curio business, he went back to barbering. In those days I had hair and I went to Jack Williams. He used to tell me “You’re not going to be bald.” Well, my Dad was bald, my Dad’s three brothers were bald, my grandfather was bald, and my mother’s three or four brothers were bald and so was her dad. So I reconciled myself to being bald early on. (Laughter.) Williams used to be in with Roy Parks and, later, with Fred Reed, who both had the barbershop at different times next to--south of--The Paramount Theater.
The building that’s immediately to the west next to The Wonder Bar had a restaurant in it, maybe Charley’s Steakhouse. There was a side door to The Wonder Bar, through a passageway and you could walk into Charley’s Steakhouse. I used to eat there a lot. On the corner, again to the west, was a service station owned by the Thomas’s. Sutah Parker Thomas. She was married to Sonny Thomas whose dad owned that station. There was a garage back on the back end. That’s still there.
Later, all that was combined—the restaurant and they built a building where the service station was and the back garage. On the other corner was another service station where they built the Ford garage called Ritchie-Davis. Walter Davis later was the mayor of Casa Grande for several years and also was a City judge for a lot of years. They were tied together through marriage. Mrs. Ritchie just passed away this past year and has a daughter living here, Marlene, married to Ben McHaney. Later it was an Edsel agency.
Across the street, the Brooks—and later the Anderson brothers—had an auto agency over where the Boot Shop was. Further to the south, between the hotel and Second Street, there was a Shell service station. The building itself belonged to Jack Clemens who was W.P.’s son, the W.P. who had the bank. In those years, Jack didn’t run the station but he had the bulk plant down around the railroad where Casa Grande Avenue curves and Jimmie Kerr Boulevard picks up. That used to be where they stored gasoline and oil and different distributors would take jobbers like Shell, etc. The Ralph Dickies had that land. The canopy from that station sat there for a number of years. He had another son, Dudley who owned--and his heirs have--The Golden Eagle/Budweiser Distributing business.
Back there where Buie Plumbing is now there used to be Matt’s Drive-In. Inside they had stools and a lot of people drove through. There was a fellow who had a series of restaurants in different locations named Matt Crouse. He had two daughters—Pat, who was in my class, and a younger one named Sue.
High School and College
Camilla: So we’re in your high school years now?
Jimmie: Yes. I was elected and participated as a class officer every year. I was Student Body President my senior year. I went to Boys’ State. That’s kind of how I got started in politics. I was active, played in the band, and had a pep band called “Kerr Dog and His Five Hounds”. I tried to play a little sports earlier, but wasn’t very good. But beyond going to school, I worked. Mr. Loren Curtis, the Superintendent of the school, when I’d get rundown or tired would ask me, “Is there something we can do to help you?” Having the superintendent come over and talk to you makes you feel pretty good.
Remember the fish pond that used to be out in front of the high school? They filled it up during the [City Hall] remodeling, I think. As you graduated, the class tradition was to give something to the school. I think the Class of ‘34 gave the fish pond. Well, it was sort of traditional for freshmen to get chucked into the fish pond.
When I was a kid a lot of us swam in the ditch on Fourth Street where we lived. There were cottonwoods with a big rope. The Hoopers lived up there, too. It wasn’t lined with cement. We’d swim in it and it was great fun. We covered that ditch from City limit to City limit. I delivered papers to three people on Olive when I was a little kid. There was a house on the west side of Olive, the old A.M. Ward house, a white frame house with a circular driveway that goes all the way around the house. The people that that subdivision was named for lived in that house—the Wards. Then, as you come south on Olive, there’s a nice old house back in the trees where Mrs. [Blodie] Thode lived, the woman who pioneered and got Hoemako Hospital here. She was a registered nurse, a Canadian originally, who was married to a world’s champion cowboy named Earl Thode. They had pasture land out east toward where Picacho Street is now. I’d deliver her paper, then go down to Wards, then to the other side of the canal. For those three papers I had to pedal SO far. Later, in 1967 when I was first Mayor of Casa Grande, that was the northern boundary of the City limits.
I learned to swim at the high school where the City building department is now on the extreme west end of City Hall. It was an indoor swimming pool. Dave White, when I was Mayor, was the Parks & Recreation Director preceding Jerry Sullivan. He taught me to swim when I was in high school. After World War II, Dave was a lifeguard. Camilla: And you went straight on to ASU?
Jimmie: No. I laid out a year and worked in my Dad’s cleaners to get the money to go to college. Mr. Curtis and I were in Kiwanis together and he asked me to call him by his first name. I just couldn’t. He was always Mr. Curtis to me.
I don’t want to mislead you, I wasn’t anything but an average student—not National Honor Society or anything. I didn’t make bad grades but I wasn’t a brain. I graduated high school in 1953, worked in the cleaners, and then in the Fall of 1954 I started college in Marketing and Sales. The first semester I got a B and the second semester I got an A in college English. I really wasn’t that good but we had a professor who stressed certain things. I made sure I was up on those things. In those days they sent your transcript back to your high school. At the end of the first year I had all A’s and B’s. Mr. Curtis came to me that summer and said “Man, are we proud of you! It makes the school look good.” (Laughter.) I didn’t keep that up all four years, though.
I usually came home on Fridays, worked in the cleaners on Saturday, and my Dad would pay me $10—my spending money for the next week. I had a car. My Dad bought me a used car and I went back and forth. Each summer I worked at the cleaners to get the moey to go back to ASU in September.
Camilla: Were the roads paved by then?
Jimmie: Yes. The freeway wasn’t there but we’d go up Pinal Avenue and, just short of where you join the freeway now, you’d pick up the state highway and go west. For a good number of years you could still see the indentation. They later fenced it. That road is still out there but they’ve bulldozed it on the Gila River reservation. It runs parallel to the freeway. At State Route 587 we would curve out on the reservation and we’d go due north up through Chandler. Depending on where you wanted to go, you might go all the way up. Between Tempe and Chandler there were open fields and desert. You’d go over on Baseline or Guadalupe Road.
Marriage and Training with GE – 1958-1961
Camilla: So you were in your what, your early 20’s?
Jimmie: Let’s see, about 23. I graduated from Tempe in 1958 with a Bachelor of Science degree. Donna, my wife of 46 years, and I met at ASU. I was a sophomore and had a night class in U.S. History and she was a freshman. I thought she was real cute and I sat down by her. She wouldn’t talk to me. We finally had our first test and she beat me. So I approached her with “What did you put for the answer to this?” (Laughter.)
We continued to go to school and, after a while, went together steady. In the summer I’d go home to Casa Grande to work and we wouldn’t have any contact until we got back to school in the Fall. We got engaged when I was a senior. I graduated in May 1958 and we were married that November when I was 24. Donna graduated in the fall of 1959 with a nursing degree.
Camilla: Did you go back to Casa Grande?
Jimmie: No. During college I’d had a deferment and was enrolled in Air Force ROTC all the time I was at ASU. When I graduated, the Korean War was over and they were not interested in taking people into the service. So they gave me some options. I had a six year military obligation. One of the choices was to NOT get a commission. Instead, you went in for six months and went to boot camp. After that you had five and a half years of active reserve that meant you had to go one paid weekend a month and for two paid weeks in the summer for maneuvers. I didn’t plan to make the military a career so I chose that option. I went to boot camp in San Antonio, Texas.
When I finished boot camp, I interviewed with several different companies. At that time General Electric had a manufacturing plant in Phoenix that made computers. When I went to work for them they were on Peoria Avenue. They built a brand new building on Black Canyon Highway—which was a two lane road at that time—that is now where Honeywell’s facility is.
I was in a national training program called the BTC, Business Training Course. It was a three year program. Every six months they moved you from Accounts Receivable to Accounts Payable to Cost Accounting, etc. At the end of that program I was going to have to move out of state and I really didn’t want to. I was working all day and taking classes from my bosses as part of this program at night.
I was in my third phase of the program and some things happened that I haven’t really thought about in years. I got an education in ways I’d never dreamed about. I had worked for a fellow who had been with General Electric for 17 years. He was a subsection manager. I was hoping that, somewhere down the line, it was the kind of position I’d be in. Well, somebody came in as a section manager over him who had different religious beliefs. One guy drank a lot and the other didn’t drink, or didn’t drink much, but he was expected to party with his boss. I’m watching this thinking, “Nobody told me about this kind of stuff.” So when I learned about having to go out of state I interviewed to change jobs. I had an offer with Ortho, which was owned by Johnson & Johnson. I would have been a detail man calling on doctors and pharmacists. It was a good job opportunity, more money than I was making at GE. They furnished you with a car and expense account. I had found that I didn’t like sitting at a desk eight hours a day so I talked it over with Donna and decided to take that job.
Then my Dad came up to see us from Casa Grande. He had an opportunity to sell the cleaners. The people knew he was planning to go elsewhere. He was prosperous. My Dad, in his late 60s, asked me to go back into business with him. Donna had finished school and her parents were living in Mesa (she was originally from Peoria, Illinois). She and I came back to Casa Grande. Kerr’s sold Elite Cleaners and moved to where Warehouse Furniture [817 E. Florence Boulevard] is. My Dad liked to rent. This was our third location. We were in there as Kerr’s Cleaners in November of 1959. Dad and I were partners. We had employees that pressed and sewed. I handled the outside work. Having been here so long and my having grown up here, we had a good following and our business continued to grow with Casa Grande.
END of tape.
Tape 1, side 2
Return to Casa Grande and Introduction to Politics
Camilla: What prompted you to go into politics in the first place?
Jimmie: By the time I ran, I was back in Casa Grande. But I was also recalled into the Air Force in 1961 as an Accounting Specialist and buck sergeant because of the Berlin Wall crisis. The unit was called based on our education. I owned the dry cleaners but my degree was in Accounting. We were called up for a year. Although the crisis blew over pretty shortly, they held onto us. I served 10 ½ months at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
Donna was Director of Nurses at Hoemako Hospital. She worked everything! She stayed here in our house while I was in Virginia. We didn’t have any children then. My Dad continued to run the cleaners. When I left, we were making money. When I came back, we were losing money. He had paid all the bills but I owed him. I worked for another year after I returned paying him back. We got the business back up and, until I sold it, every year was better than the year before.
Camilla: One of the articles I read about you said you were first elected to an office at the age of 29 when you were elected in 1963 to Casa Grande City Council.
Jimmie: When I came back after my Air Force service, the Council was being run by what many people thought was a clique. Over cards or coffee these four Councilmen, the Mayor not included, would discuss the business of the Council. People were unhappy with that scenario. Those folks went out looking for potential leaders, trying to find people who could beat those four candidates. I was in pretty tall clover, I thought. They were older and more successful in business than I was.
Norm Bingham, Bingham Equipment, was one of those men who ran. Jack Foster who owned the mortuary ‘til the Warren’s bought it was another. Jack’s wife’s family, the Mauds, had owned the mortuary before that. These were very well established, respected people. There was a Hispanic fellow, Conrad Tapia, who was born and raised here--a hardworking man—that they also wanted. All four of us won and beat the incumbents. I really learned a lot from those gentlemen. We had some outstanding people on the Council over the years. They had the best interests of the community and we were a pretty good mesh. I saw large numbers of people and was on the firing line. I’d been in most of the homes in all sections of this town. People developed a certain confidence from knowing me.
That was a four year term. Then I became the mayor in 1967. Mayors serve two year terms and I had four of those—eight years and three moths until the Charter was voted in in June 1976. The town had been incorporated for a lot of years but a Charter government was being instituted. A Charter city is a level allowed in state government. Drafting a Charter is like writing a constitution for yourself. The Charter actually gives you broader powers than just the normal incorporated town and, in some cases, it limits you. The people have to vote to say, “Yes, we want a Charter.” The existing Council appoints Freeholders who draft the Charter and develop most of the policies that govern our city today. That was done in the latter part of 1974 and early ’75.
The term limit for mayor in the Charter was one of my suggestions. It’s funny because, in later years, I had to live up to that. I could have re-run as the Charter was coming in because I was grandfathered in but I had been twelve years and three months as an elected official. I thought in fairness to the citizens it was time for a change. I was tired, too, although it was a part-time job. Our three children were born during this period. Barry, our son, was born in June 1966. Julie was born in August 1967 and Kristi was born in August 1970.
The way the Charter reads, you have to have a break. In those years, the primary was in February and the general election was in March. You took your seat the first Monday in April. I was carried over until June because of the Charter coming in.
Casa Grande was the largest town in the country. When I was growing up, Coolidge was larger. But Casa Grande had grown a lot and we’d been fairly successful with mechanization of cotton. All of a sudden, while I was Mayor, Casa Grande started losing population without the influx of the cotton pickers. The price of cotton was dropping, too, and that was 100% of our economy. Lots of people were going out of business. There were empty buildings that were being torn down so that taxpayers didn’t have to pay the higher taxes on lots with improvements on them. Commercial property in Arizona pays 2 ½ times the rate that homes do. The tax is heavy on commercial and industrial properties in Arizona. Our young people were leaving town because of the lack of jobs.
During the years I was mayor and councilman we began the first real economic development. We got the Francisco Grande hotel. That brought in a hundred jobs. And we got the V.I.P. Industrial Park. It was a community effort with many people working for diversification. And we accomplished it. In today’s world, agriculture is probably about 25% of the Casa Grande economy.
1976 -- Jimmie Runs for County Supervisor
I was out of office starting June 1975. In those years the County Supervisor was James Kortsen, a real nice fellow, a farmer in Stanfield. He’d been on the high school board and had served as supervisor for ten years with two more years to go. I was out of office approximately a year and some people came to me and said, “Casa Grande is the biggest town in the county and we don’t have representation on the Board of Supervisors.” He didn’t like to do cooperative agreements with Casa Grande. He was a little abrupt. Would I consider running?
The bottom line is, I ran against the incumbent Mr. Kortsen in 1976 and beat him in the primary. Both of us were Democrats. I had no opposition in the November election. January 1, 1977 I took office.
Supervisor was a part-time job in those years. I would put in 15-20 hours per week. I ran my cleaners all the time and meet with the road foreman each day at the cleaners. We built the Casa Grande City-County building in my first term and paid cash for it. After the building was open I tried to establish some office hours and wean people from coming into the cleaners but I didn’t have a secretary or any staff. I’d be out there from 1-3. Nobody would come to see me. I always had something to read, but I was frustrated because I knew things were stacking up for me to do at the cleaners. Invariably, as soon as I’d return to the cleaners somebody would come in wanting to talk about the county. I’d say, “Could you come back tomorrow during my office hours?” And they’d get irritated and say “You’re getting awfully high handed. We’ve talked to you for twelve years as a City official. Now you want us to make an appointment!” I probably tried that for six months. Finally, I just had the phone transferred so that the county number rang in my business.
My help took the calls and complaints or else I answered the phone direct unless I was busy or out doing pick-up and delivery, too. I had a scanner so I could hear the highway maintenance men and I had a county radio in my delivery truck. If I heard something that needed action right away, I knew about it and did what needed to be done right away. Otherwise, it waited until the next day when the foreman came in. That’s how I did it for about the next six years, ‘til 1985.
The Board of Supervisors met on Monday of each week. I would be in Florence all day. They were marathon meetings because we didn’t have “consent agendas” then. One motion, one second can cover things on the “consent agenda.” We used to have people in there shuffling in and out way into the evenings. In the afternoons I’d be running things down for constituents or having other meetings.
I served two four-year terms and then I chose not to run because the amount of work last couple of years had been picking up. It was taking more and more time. Pinal County was growing and having more problems. There was double digit inflation so we didn’t have enough money to do what we wanted to do. It was frustrating. But the biggest thing was that people expected me to be there all the time, or go night after night to meetings or out to see something. I couldn’t afford it. The job paid a lot better than the mayor’s job ever paid--$15,000. However, I had two kids in college with a third coming up so it was costing me more than that. I couldn’t afford the luxury of politics. I had to make a living for my family and educate my children.
The Legislature sets supervisors’ salaries. At that time, what they did was set the salary when you started your first term and it would remain the same for four years. Soon thereafter they deviated from that and started giving annual increases, probably because of the double digit inflation, growth in the state, more for the supervisors to do. I was out for eight years. When I came back they stopped that annual increase and set my salary at $37,500 for four years with no raises.
Mayor or a Second Eight Years – 1986
Once I announced that I wasn’t going to run for re-election, people began to come to come asking “Would you consider running for Mayor again?” To be honest, I said no. “Why don’t you ask this guy or this girl?” I was hoping to have a break. I thought, “Why do I want to do this?” But there were a series of months when this was happening. Some people who’d been my supporters in the past, some outstanding citizens in the community who’d been instrumental in diversification and had investments here, and people I grew up respecting were coming to me. They were saying they wanted somebody who didn’t have a special interest, an axe to grind, or whatever was motivating other possible candidates. So they offered to raise the money for the election and circulate the petitions. As it turned out, it was close to the deadline and they only had one day to get the petitions signed. They said, “Casa Grande needs you!”
I suppose it sounds corny, but Casa Grande had been my whole life. Casa Grande helped raise me. There were people in this town who supplemented my not having a mother and it meant a lot to me. It STILL means a lot to me. If you haven’t been there, it probably sounds corny. I felt I needed to respond.
There’s a funny anecdote to this. I said “OK, I’ll run. But you better be getting yourselves someone else because I’m not in this for the long haul. In the next two years you need to find somebody else. I’m doing it for the town and people I respect in the town.” The story is, I stayed for four elections—eight years--and I enjoyed it. I was proud. We made a lot of progress.
Issues in City Government During Jimmie’s Twenty Years
Camilla: What were some of the issues during those years?
Jimmie: When I first became mayor, the Mayor didn’t have an office or a secretary. I never had a full-time secretary anytime while I was mayor although I had a part-time one the second time around—I utilized somebody else’s staff when I needed. We built the City Hall [where the public library is now] during the first eight years I served. [This is how we did it.] The property tax was $3.17 per $100 assessed evaluation in 1967 when I first became the mayor. We told people we were going to lower their property tax and go onto sales tax, which we didn’t have then. We started annexation of some automobile agencies that were in the county. Under the railroad underpass on Highway 84, on the left, was the Dodge agency. There was a Chevrolet agency where Cropper is now on Pinal Avenue. We were going to annex Rancho Grande and the subdivision on Bisnaga on the right of Trekell, Desert Valley. In subsequent years we took the property tax from $3.17 to ninety-nine cents where it still is today. So we cut it over 2/3rds. In the meantime we also changed the City from dependence on twice a year property tax to monthly sales tax. Casa Grande continued to grow and so did sales tax.
That first year we just picked an amount out of the air and put it into the anticipated budget. We ended up having twice as much as what we’d estimated. So we took that money and set it aside for new building. The City-County building that was on the corner of Marshall and 4th Streets is where I would have met with you but there wasn’t an office for the Mayor, only a partitioned space he used that belonged to the City Manager. So we would go to Fire Station #1 for meetings. We put that money aside for a new City Hall. The next year we continued to have windfalls. We paid cash for the new City Hall. Then we built the library for cash and a maintenance facility. We paid as we went. Early on we’d buy used vehicles and, if you were building a backstop [for a baseball diamond] we’d get Dusty Owens who had a welding shop to give us old pipe and we’d buy chicken wire, then we’d weld it all together. We lived hand to mouth. But once we had income from the sales tax we could buy new vehicles and get employees decent wages. We were honest with the people of Casa Grande and did what we said we would do!
We did miles and miles of paving. We expanded the City limits, which we did even more the second time around. I can remember when Brown Street was the City limits as you went down Florence Boulevard. We covered the San Carlos irrigation ditch that went through where the high school [now City Hall] gymnasium and the auditorium are now and went up to McMurray and then over the where the junior high is today [Casa Grande Middle School].
As I said, we diversified the economy. I think in the second eight-year period we had the gas lines when the Arabs did an oil embargo on the United States. We had meetings with all the service stations and bulk dealers and set up a system based on license plate numbers which days you could buy gasoline. It wasn’t exactly rationing but it was a way to cut down on the lines.
When I came back as Mayor the second time in 1985, they had built the police station but the City Hall needed expansion. All during the time I’d been with the county in between, they’d maintained—and still maintain—the City sales tax. So sales tax has paid for the new growth, although there have probably been some bonds used for the police building.
END of tape.
Begin Tape 2. Side 1. You asked about some of the challenges. We were really working hard on trying to diversify and we were finding that the average age of the population was going up. The young people were leaving the community. I can’t remember exactly when Central Arizona College was built , but we didn’t have the opportunity of the community college in those years. People couldn’t find employment here unless your dad was a farmer or in business. If you went to college, it was that way, too. A few teaching jobs, or start your own business. Our young people were going elsewhere. Diversificiation was good for the business community. It meant more competition on prices and more jobs. It also meant some of the young people could come back here, particularly in manufacturing. And it meant people who couldn’t afford to go away to college could get more education at a reasonable cost and so forth.
During my first series as the mayor, Mr. Bill Erdman was appointed to the State Highway Commission to represent Pinal, Gila and Graham counties. That was in anticipation of the freeway. The original freeway location was not as close as it ended up. It would have been closer to Coolidge. Casa Grande “out-politiked” them! Not just Jimmie Kerr but lots of people. It was unusual in this area, and still is somewhat, for there to be many Republicans here. Jack Williams was Governor and Bill Erdman was the Enco bulk dealer here. Bill had served on the City Council and was Vice Mayor during some of the six years Pappy Guinn was Mayor. Guinn was followed as mayor by Jack Foster for two years.
Back to the County
Jimmie: So, after a second eight years, term limits got me. (Laughter.) Camilla: The same thing you initiated? Jimmie: Yes, it came back to bite me. I would have loved to run again. I didn’t aspire to go back to the county. The last two and a half years that I was mayor, I’d sold the cleaners. I gave full time to the City. I didn’t get more money. I got $400 a month that last eight years. I was fortunate. I always won in the primary. I got as high during the course of 14 elections as 83% of the vote and that was my last term as mayor.
I was asked to run again for Supervisor. All the kids had graduated from college and two of my girls were married. Some of the expensive things were over. “Would you consider coming back?” The supervisor, at that point, had said he was thinking of running for state senator and or County Recorder. I agreed to run, announced, lined up some money to help me campaign, and then, Mr. [Dean] Weatherly, the incumbent Supervisor, decided he WOULD run again. He was not too happy with me, but I was committed. I beat him in the primary. I didn’t announce until April when I was in my last year because it’s state law that you cannot announce earlier without resigning. My wife said, “Don’t you want a gap, some time to yourself?” But, quite honestly, I didn’t want to test fate and I wouldn’t have had any insurance during the time between one office and the other. So I served until December 31 as Mayor and took office as Supervisor on January 1. I’m currently in my third term back and my 40th year as an elected official. The combination, 16 years as Mayor and four years as Councilman, means that I’ve served twice as long as any other mayor. Mr. [Bob] Mitchell had put forward a ballot measure to do away with term limits, but the voters chose not to do that. But it wasn’t a planned thing on my part to go from the City to the county and back.
If you look at 1985 to 2004, I went 20 years straight years in elected office both in the City and in the county, forty years total with one year and a half break (1963-2004). My Dad always told me, “It’s a two way street. You don’t just take, you give back.” Later years, he got a little upset because he thought maybe I was spending too much time with the City, but he encouraged me to be active in the community. In practice, he’d give money and support to his town. This town has been very good to me and to my family. People helped guide me including teachers, neighbors, parents of friends. We raised our family here and we still have two businesses here and live in the same home. This town is what supported us and it was an honor for me to represent the people of this town. I’ve seen a lot of progress and am proud to have been a part of it.
Changes in Constituencies
Camilla: What changes, if any, do you see in your constituency during the years you’ve been in public office?
Jimmie: I think the constituency as it’s grown is much more of a “ME” society. Not all of them. Still, a lot of them don’t care about Casa Grande or Pinal County three to five years from now. I honestly don’t think they believe they’ll be here. I hope they’re wrong. If they see this as a stepping stone, more power to them. They want something—a paved road, a scholarship for their child, or they’re working an angle. They want something for themselves at all the taxpayers’ expense.
People used to look up to elected officials. You know, I put twenty years in with the City and the most I ever got was $4,800 a year. In the early years I know it cost me more for my babysitting, for banquets and other things I was expected to go to. The City would pay for me but I had to pay for Donna. It’s still the same today. Some things the county will pay for, but if Donna goes, I have to pay for her. In some cases, they don’t pay for me, either.
There are people who think you do it for the money, that you have ulterior motives. They think that you’re going to profit from what you do. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more people today who not only imply but say cutting things. “How much did you get for that vote!” They’re a lot harder to please, I guess. Like everything, there are a few bad apples in government, but a lot of good people who might be willing to serve are turned off. They aren’t willing to bare their souls or take the crap. Every year you have to file financial disclosures. You have to fill out information about who you owe money to, who owes money to you. The Dispatch used to run the disclosures! There are people who aren’t willing to do that, people who would be excellent County Supervisors, excellent Mayors, excellent State Legislators, or excellent Governors. Look at our Congressmen who have to run every two years. It costs $2 million to run. Even a Supervisor race can run anywhere between $25-$50,000. This year there’s going to be a Republican and a Democrat running. You’re not done in September. After you win the primary, there’ll still be signs and campaigning to do for the general in November. It just depends. You need to get people willing to generate that kind of money. They may not be willing to take the abuse, file the disclosures. Then you get the snide remarks.
The difference between county and city government is significant. State statue allows counties a very narrow, defined road. You’re a creature of the State Legislature. Cities, Charter cities, have a lot broader powers and you don’t have all the politics—and I don’t mean only Republican and Democratic. There are thirty-three elected officials in Pinal County. Most of them are very fine people. But there may be a better way to do it. The Legislature could allow us to move into the new world, hire more people based on education, qualifications and experience. We could make better use of resources. The counties as well as the schools depend on property taxes. We don’t have the authority to change that. We only have a 1% sales tax. Half of that is for roads and that is shared with the nine incorporated towns in Pinal County. The county gets just 40% of the money. That tax will run out in 2006 unless the voters renew it. We need to begin working on that right now.
Camilla: Jimmie, I want to thank you for your time to do this interview. It will be a valuable resource in the archives at the Historical Society. Thank you so much.