by Dennis Gallagher, Founder and CEO, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation, Inc.
Elisabeth Ruffner will be remembered as the quintessential Renaissance woman. She was a writer, a radio and TV host, an advocate for the arts, a cultural historian and a preservationist.
She was born Sept. 17, 1919 in Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati and in 1940 traveled to Arizona by train to meet the family of her fiancé, Lester “Budge” Ruffner. She married him a short time later and fully embraced Arizona in general and Prescott in particular as her home. While raising her three children, Melissa, Rebecca and George, she began her career as a community volunteer.
Elisabeth dedicated much of her life to preserving and protecting more than 700 historic buildings in Arizona by getting them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1950s, she became co-founder and president of the Prescott Community Hospital and Auxiliary. When it was relocated in 1964, the name was changed to Yavapai Community Hospital, and in 1984 it became the Yavapai Regional Medical Center.
In the 1970s, she led the campaign to build a new Prescott Library and to restore the 1903 Carnegie Library. When the construction of a new building threatened to demolish the historic Victorian Bashford House, Elisabeth saved it by having it relocated to the grounds of Sharlot Hall Museum.
Between her many other projects, she spearheaded the capital campaign for the Elks Opera House in Prescott, raising over $1.7 million for the successful renovation and preservation of this historic building, which was completed in 2010. She was chair of the state’s Historic Sites Committee, served as an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and received a Presidential appointment to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Services.
In the 1990s, she founded the Open Space Alliance and headed up the coalition through the early 2000s. Elisabeth also was one of the founders and the first president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation — an organization that works with local, state and national partners to promote and protect Arizona’s historical, archeological, architectural and cultural resources. In addition, she served as founding president of the Prescott Area Arts and Humanities Council and president of the Yavapai Heritage Foundation.
A dedicated steward of Prescott’s libraries, heritage and historic preservation, and supporter of the arts, Elisabeth was recognized statewide and nationally for her efforts. She garnered numerous prestigious awards. A partial list of awards given to Elisabeth over the years include:
1969 — Prescott Business and Professional Woman’s Club declared her Woman of the Year
1969 — Rosenzweig Award from the Arizona State Library Association for outstanding citizen participation in the development of community libraries
1976 — Awarded a citation as Trustee of the Year from the American Library Association
1980 — Cultural Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior
1980 — Arizona Governor’s award for Historic Preservation
1980 — Individual Award at the 29th annual Governor’s Arts Awards
2003 — Arizona “Culture Keeper” Award
2008 — Historic Preservationist and Community Activist Award
2008 — Named History Maker by the Arizona Historical Society
2014 — Western “Heritage Keeper” Award by the Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
Prescott Mayor Greg Mengarelli said in a City Council statement: “Elisabeth will forever be a true Prescott icon, and her contributions to our city and our state were immeasurable.”
Of note, in 2010 Elisabeth was the first person I approached for advice and support for the vision/concept to create a Western Heritage Center in downtown Prescott. She was a great supporter and excited about the Center’s opening in May 2019, although she passed before she could visit it.
Sources: Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame, 2008; Historical League, Inc., 2008; Prescott Women’s Magazine, Historical Prescott Women-2018.