Keno Hawker

Keno Hawker

Former Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker, who led Mesa through the trauma of 9/11 and laid the groundwork for the city’s booming economic climate, died on Oct. 21. He was 76.

Mayor Hawker served two terms on the city council between 1986 to 1994, a two-year term starting in 1998, and then eight years as mayor between 2000 and 2008.

A co-founder of Hawker and Evans Asphalt Co. after moving to Arizona in 1972, he ran for council because he hated paying the annual $50 fee to the city for the “privilege” of collecting sales tax.

“If anything, the city should pay me $50 for the effort,” Hawker said at the time.

Julie Rees, who served as his chief of staff from 2001-04, said Mayor Hawker saw “the opportunity that we had in the Southeast Valley and Mesa for sustainable development.”

He served the city during two major events that will impact Mesa for generations: the federal government’s closing of Williams Air Force Base and the  closing and sale of the General Motors Proving Grounds, both of which opened up thousands of acres to development.

“Sometimes people will see (southeast Mesa) now, and they’re like ‘wow, this is great, this happened overnight,’ and it didn’t,” City Manager Chris Brady ironically had mentioned in talking about Mayor Hawker at a council meeting several weeks before his death. “It took decades of planning, deliberate discussions about what we wanted it to be.”

Mayor Hawker helped set the vision of converting the Air Force base into Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and surrounding area an employment hub and protecting what was initially called “Williams Gateway Regional Job Center” from encroaching residential development.

In his 2007 state of the city address, he said, “It has been my goal to turn Mesa from a bedroom to a boardroom community.” 

This mantra is still repeated by current District 6 Councilman Kevin Thompson and by his predecessor Scott Somers, who will rejoin the council in January.

Rees said that Mayor Hawker saw infrastructure as the key to unlocking Mesa’s economic potential.

“It was really exciting to watch him as he led the charge” for passing Prop. 400 in 2004, which extended the transportation tax in Maricopa County for long-term transportation projects, including the buildout of the Loop 202 Freeway, considered as a transformative piece of infrastructure for the East Valley.

Rees said her onetime boss also focused on making sure that Mesa was “getting its fair share” of public dollars.

Gateway Airport spokesman Ryan Smith said Mesa leaders who came after Mayor Hawker benefited from his work, including Smith’s father, Mayor Scott Smith, who succeeded the late mayor.

 “A thing that’s kind of lost on political leaders today – a good elected leader shouldn’t worry about the payoff that they’re going to get while in office,” Ryan Smith said. 

“Good planning and good political leaders plan for the next generation, and when you look at Keno’s accomplishments, all of those accomplishments were going to come well after he was out of office.”

Mayor Hawker said in a 2018 interview that his strong Libertarian small-government philosophy was nurtured by an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.

“He questioned every project, every spending proposal that came through the council,” said Barret Marson, a former reporter who covered the mayor for the Tribune.

“He always raised issues about whether this small, conservative city should be involved in various kinds of projects.”

But that fiscal conservatism didn’t stop him from backing many major city projects and initiatives, including tax incentives to bring businesses to Mesa.

A Tribune profile published at the end of his two terms as mayor noted the irony that he left a city government that was larger and more proactive than he found it.

Rees said that Hawker won allies for his projects by being “a really great listener.”

“He was always looking for points of intersection,” she said.

In a 2003 Maricopa Association of Governments newsletter, Mayor Hawker said “I have never been one who has enjoyed party politics. Non-partisan I love, because then you represent your supporters and not political party leadership.”

Named Keno in honor of his father’s landlord in San Diego during World War II, he was originally from Janesville, Wisconsin, and graduated from University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point with a degree of finance, and a masters in business administration from University of Wisconsin - Madison.

He was an avid outdoorsman and athlete and enjoyed adventures, including a 2,400-mile cross-country bike ride. 

He once said that “he who dies with the most toys wins,” and enjoyed many –  including a unicycle, river rafts, motorcycles, airplanes and a climbing wall, among many others.

Some Mesa residents may remember him riding an old-fashioned penny-farthing bicycle in a parade.

“He was interested in a lot of diverse things,” Rees said.

Mayor Hawker is survived by his wife Penny Wolfswinkel-Hawker, son Ryan Hawker, daughter Shelby Hawker and two grandsons.

A Celebration of Life will be held on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1 p.m. at the Mesa Arts Center’s Virginia G. Piper Theater. Memorial donations can be made to Mesa United Way.

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