The City of Prescott lost a dearly beloved citizen, Elisabeth “Bette” Friedrich Ruffner, on March 13, 2019. So much of what people love about our wonderful city, Elisabeth organized, preserved, revitalized and created by sharing her vision of what could be and getting others involved. She cared not who was credited; she cared only that ‘things got done.’
A newlywed from Cincinnati in 1940, Elisabeth quickly found her place in Prescott. At the age of 20, with her husband away in the service, and just a few pre-med courses completed, she found work as a medical assistant for Dr. Florence Yount, one of the few physicians left in the area during wartime. Dr. Yount put Elisabeth to work setting up a lab and treating all manner of minor ailments, from boils to burns to broken toes.
Elisabeth had a toddler to care for, and, after the war ended, two more babies came along, completing the family with two girls and a boy. With the births of each of her children at the Prescott Community Hospital on Marina Street in the old Jefferson School, Elisabeth soon became engaged in planning of a new hospital and served as the public relations chairman, with the groundbreaking taking place in 1954. She went on to start the hospital auxiliary and was recently honored during the 75th anniversary of what is now the Yavapai Regional Medical Center.
In the early 1950s, Elisabeth found a preschool close to the family business in downtown Prescott, so she could help her husband, Lester “Budge” Ruffner, with the business side of the Ruffner Funeral Home. Libraries soon became important to Elisabeth, with three young children starting school, and being a voracious reader herself. Elisabeth was a frequent patron of the Carnegie Library the 1950s and 1960s, usually with her children or the Girl Scout troop she led in tow. She became President of the Friends of the Prescott Public Library after the new library was built in 1974, and promoted summer reading programs and the county-wide bookmobile. A special reading room in her honor was dedicated just a few years ago. Today, the Prescott Public Library is enjoyed by some half-million visitors annually.
One of the first historic buildings Elisabeth fell in love with was the Carnegie Library, the first of its kind in Arizona, built in 1903 and funded by the citizens of the town, who raised funds to match those of the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Elisabeth worked with the City of Prescott to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Elisabeth was bitten by the history bug again when Budge became chairman of the 1964 Prescott Centennial. There were events to organize, dignitaries to host, and the town’s 100-year history to bring to life for the public in a variety of ways, including a mural of Prescott history featured in Council Chambers of the Prescott City Hall. An elegant centennial ball complete with period costumes took place at the Prescott Armory to complete the celebration.
Another Gurley Street gem known as the Bashford House was to be torn down to make way for a fast-food restaurant. Elisabeth incorporated the Yavapai Heritage Foundation in response to serve as a funding source and, with the help of the community, raised ample funds to purchase the house and have it moved to its present site at the Sharlot Hall Museum. The iconic photo of children and adults walking together down Gurley Street with the building loaded on a moving truck will not soon be forgotten.
Elisabeth did not limit her preservation work to downtown Prescott. She saw the value of historic preservation for cities and small towns throughout Arizona, serving as an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC. She also worked with many other local citizens to protect our irreplaceable viewsheds and open space and, with the national Rails to Trails movement, replaced railroad ties with public trail easements throughout Yavapai County. Today, Prescott celebrates 104 miles of accessible trails for outdoor enthusiasts from Arizona and around the country to enjoy year-round.
All these many projects, near and dear to her as they were, took a backseat to her family. As her own children became parents themselves, she was first to hold a new baby, cherish every photograph, and spend every waking minute with her grandchildren. She is famous for her many typed letters, birthday and graduation cards, and, of late, her frequent emails and, yes, at least one text on her cellphone!
Somehow, she has kept the generations of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren connected over the years, from California to Connecticut.
Having helped start the Ruffner Family Association nationally, and co-hosting the first reunion of relatives in Prescott in 1993, she very much hoped to live to see the Ruffner Family Association Reunion return to Prescott in June. Instead, Ruffners from all over the US will gather here to learn about their ancestors going back to the colonies in 1700s, and also to remember Elisabeth, a champion for keeping her family-by-marriage’s history alive and our beautiful City of Prescott thriving.
One of Elisabeth’s greatest gifts was how she always encouraged others. As anyone who ever worked with her knows, it was very difficult to say no to Elisabeth. She believed strongly in civic engagement and inspired so many people statewide to share in the responsibility of citizenship and governing on local boards and city councils. When she would meet people who were new to Prescott, she would often get to know them and then introduce them to others in the community who shared similar interests or causes. In the 1970s, Elisabeth helped to establish Prescott Good Governance, a nonpartisan group designed to educate citizens about pressing issues and to find and support candidates to run and serve. Elisabeth mastered the art of civil discourse and encouraged folks to sit down face to face and do what is best for the greater good. She liked to say that no matter how tough the process was, a good outcome made the effort worthwhile.
Elisabeth Ruffner has left a great legacy for her family, Prescott, Yavapai County and Arizona. A dear friend recently commented that just knowing Elisabeth made everyone the best version of themselves. And Prescott Mayor Pro Tem Billie Orr reflected, “Everything that people love about Prescott and Yavapai County was touched by Elisabeth Ruffner.”
Elisabeth liked to say she was not really a pioneer, because she “came on the train.” However, her pioneering vision and dedication to all things Prescott and Arizona has spanned just short of one hundred years. A pioneer indeed.
Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame
Honoring Arizona’s Extraordinary Women: Elisabeth Ruffner
Arizona Historymakers™ BIOGRAPHY
Biography of Elisabeth Ruffner, Historic Preservationist and Community Activist, honored as Historymaker 2008 by Historical League, Inc.
Arizona Historymakers™ Oral History Transcript
Oral history interview with Elisabeth Ruffner conducted for Historical League, Inc.
July 21, 2007 in Prescott, AZ.