"Do you know why there is a rock wall around the UA?" asks Stephen Pierce. The question is directed to a stumped administrator on a recent visit by Pierce to the University of Arizona campus.
Pierce, who has just taken the reins as president of the Arizona Senate, already knows the answer. From 1968 to 1972, he was a student at the UA where he learned, among other things, about how the wall was built to keep range cattle off of the campus.
As a member of a pioneer ranching family in Arizona, there is a good chance he would have known anyway.
Pierce is all about cattle. He graduated with a degree in animal science from what is now the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, worked in the meat sciences laboratory, was a member of the livestock judging team and after graduation took charge of the family ranch near Prescott.
A native of Phoenix, the farms where Pierce grew up in the early 1950s have long since given way to urban neighborhoods, strip malls and even a golf course and country club.
His grandfather, Delbert Pierce, moved to Arizona and started farming and ranching in 1915. Pierce's maternal grandfather also owned a farm north of Scottsdale near the Pima Indian Reservation.
"My grandfather (Delbert Pierce) once worked for O'Malley Lumber Company in Phoenix," he said. "One guy came in and said he was getting married and didn't have anything of value except a homestead in Paradise Valley, which was way out on Pinnacle Peak Road. My grandfather traded him furniture and other things to help him get started in exchange for land out in the desert, which was nothing.
"Talk about having land, I spoke with my father about it. He said ‘Yeah, I had land right next to it that I paid $4 an acre and sold for $9 an acre. And I was happy.'"
Eventually the Pierce family settled in 1959 on a small valley northwest of Prescott and began raising cattle on what would become the Las Vegas Ranch. Steve Pierce went to Prescott High School and worked on the family ranch "hoeing thistle, moving pipe and putting up hay."
"Harold Myers, the dean of the UA College of Agriculture at the time, would see me at 4-H and other events around the state and he would follow up with a letter saying ‘Good to see you, and would like you to come to the UA.'"
Heading to the UA after high school, he said, probably was a foregone conclusion. His father and brothers attended the University, as did several of his cousins who also were members of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, "so I had no choice but to join as well. There was a small (agriculture) program at ASU at the time but everyone was coming here to the land-grant college. It had the extension service, and it still is one of the better schools in the country," he said.
One of Pierce's classmates, Steve Brophy, now president of the Page Land and Cattle Company in Arizona, said he first met Pierce at Boy's State, just before their senior year in high school.
"Steve raised Hereford purebreds for show since he was old enough to hold a rope," said Brophy. "We were in Bobcats together at the UA, and he was a leader in a number of other campus activities. We have a lot in common, and he's just been a dear friend, both then and to this day."
After graduation, Pierce worked briefly for the UA Alumni Association and served on its board of directors during the 1970s.
But then Pierce went home to immerse himself in the Las Vegas Ranch that his grandfather bought, and where he and his family run registered Hereford and Angus cattle and quarter horses.
In addition to his business operations in Yavapai County, Pierce has served locally and nationally in various cattle and agricultural organizations, including the Yavapai Cattle Growers Association, Arizona Cattle Growers Association, Arizona Beef Council, Arizona Angus Association, Arizona Hereford Association, Arizona Cattle Grower's Association Board for Cattle Research and Education Foundation, National Cattlemen's Beef Board and the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
He also has served on the County Bank Board of Directors, the Anasazi Foundation and the Central Arizona Partnership. In the Arizona Senate, he has been vice chairman of the Natural Resources, Infrastructure and Public Debt Committee, and chairman of the Senate's Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and Natural Resources.
Pierce and his family also have won environmental awards for their stewardship of their ranch, including two Range Manager of the Year awards from the Society for Range Management, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission's Wildlife Habitat Stewardship Award and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies of the United States, Canada and Mexico for the 2006 Private Lands Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Award.
Eugene G. Sander, UA president and the former dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said he has known Pierce for 15 years and praised his role as a businessman and rancher by bolstering the economic development of rural Arizona. "He and his family have through their ranching operations near Prescott have made tremendous contributions to Yavapai County."
Shane Burgess, the college's dean since August 2011, said he came away impressed with Pierce after their first meeting.
"He has maintained a strong interest in the department of animal sciences and the college and is proud of our continuing work," said Burgess. "He is a staunch Wildcat who drives down for many of the home football games each year, and he is always present for Homecoming and the Dean's Burrito Breakfast."
More importantly, Burgess said Pierce "understands agriculture and the true value that it has to the state. As someone who's living requires a healthy environment, he has advocated for improving the economy that we are part of and has a sense of both economic and environmental sustainability, especially where watersheds are concerned. In addition, he has an extremely good understanding of the role and values of land grant universities like the UA."
Reflecting on his time at the UA, Pierce said he had a great time and made lifelong friends.
"I got good grades. Not outstanding grades, but what I learned here is where to go to get an answer. That's what kids need to learn in college."