Oldest UA Grad Recalls Time at School

Jess Root, along with four dozen other centenarians, was honored on Arizona's 100th birthday in February.
March 5, 2012
(Click image to enlarge) Jess Root's 1934 diploma, signed by UA President Homer Shantz.
(Click image to enlarge) Jess Root's 1934 diploma, signed by UA President Homer Shantz.
Jess Root, a 1934 UA grad, at home in Mesa. (Images courtesy Jess Root)
Jess Root, a 1934 UA grad, at home in Mesa. (Images courtesy Jess Root)
Root as an Army sergeant during WWII.
Root as an Army sergeant during WWII.

When Arizona celebrated its 100th birthday in February, Gov. Jan Brewer hosted a brunch for about 50 special guests. All of them were alive when Arizona joined the Union on Feb. 14, 1912.

Many are transplanted from other parts of the country, but the oldest native Arizonan at the festivities was Jess Root, who may also be the oldest living alumnus of the University of Arizona.

A few of the memories are starting to fade with time, but Root still remembers what it was like going to school at the UA in the early 1930s. Now 105 and living in Mesa, Ariz., with his daughter, Root graduated in 1934, during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Jess Root was born just a few days before Christmas in 1906 in Pima, Ariz., one of a handful of neighboring agricultural communities nestled along the Gila River that includes Safford, Thatcher, Solomon and Central. Growing up, Root went to school, including his first two years of college, at what would eventually become Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher.

As a transfer student, Root joined a UA campus significantly smaller than today's, contained then by Park Avenue on the west, Cherry Avenue on the east and Second and Fourth streets on the north and south.

Only the newly completed Arizona Stadium, finished in 1929, fell outside the boundaries. About half of the 24 buildings on campus then still survive and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tucson, with about 33,000 residents, was booming. The city's population had grown five fold since the turn of the century, in no small part due to a growing university and its 2,200 students.

Root called his UA experience "very agreeable." He majored in chemistry, took classes in math and physics, joined a fraternity and played baseball for coach Fred Enke.

Tuition was "about $40 a semester, and that was big money in those days," he said. "I hashed my way through school working at the Copper Kettle Café," a restaurant in the square at Park and University.

"Going in as a junior, I missed out on some of the freshman activities, but I got along just fine," he said. Old Main was the central hub of the UA. Root said he marveled at the size of Bear Down, a gym that could accommodate three basketball games at a time. He spent his first semester living at Cochise Hall, earning a bit of money there by sweeping up, before moving to a fraternity house. 

And despite the poor economy, there was still fun to be had in Tucson.

"During Prohibition, the fraternity had a Model A touring car, so every once in a while we would go down to Douglas or Nogales for fun. They took me along to drive back home because I didn't do too much drinking. One night at a dance, they paired me with a (considerably taller) 6-foot girl as a prank. But we danced and had a lot of fun." 

Root said he was active in athletics, playing baseball and tennis and running track.

He said he also acquired a nickname in college. Playing baseball in Douglas against a team from Mexico, "the girls there would say ‘Hey, Charlie, if you hit a home run, we'll give you a kiss.' After that I was known as Charlie."

Root flirted briefly with pro baseball, playing with the Safford Haybailers after he graduated, but his career took him elsewhere.

With his chemistry degree, Root headed for Globe hoping to land a job in the assay office for the Old Dominion Mine, a major copper producer. Unfortunately, the mine flooded and operations shut down, and it subsequently became a reservoir for the town.

Back home in Safford, Root said the high school teacher there offered him a part-time job teaching.

"So I taught Spanish, algebra and general science. Then the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) came along and I got a job with them as an educational adviser until they closed. Then I got a teaching job in Ash Fork (west of Flagstaff) until WWII started.

"Because I had a degree in chemistry, the Army sent me to their chemical warfare center for about three years before they moved me into military intelligence, and I served the rest of the time there. I went to OCS (Officer Candidate School) but they found out I was color blind, so that prevented me from becoming an officer."

After the war, Root started teaching in Thatcher and married Rowena Richardson, a teacher from Safford. The couple had two sons and a daughter, and moved to Phoenix where Root opened a clinical laboratory for hospitals.

Asked when he was last on the UA campus, Root said he took his two young sons to see a football game in Arizona Stadium to watch Cats and running back Art Luppino, the Cactus Comet, who in 1954 lead the nation in rushing, scoring, all-purpose running, and kickoff returns. Luppino also became the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in rushing twice.

Root has long since retired, and has outlived virtually everyone he went to school with, but he was one of the many thousands of Arizonans who were instrumental in using their skills to build the state during the mid-20th century. Of his time at the UA, he didn't hesitate to say that he'd do it all over again.

"I enjoyed it. I had a good time," he said, and added, "Bear Down."