The state turned 100 this year, but the unofficial “face” of Arizona’s House of Representatives is only turning 82. It’s warm, kind and famously smiling and it belongs atop the tiny frame of Zoe Spinner, a receptionist at the House information desk and recently retired 25-year veteran of the state Capitol.
Anyone who has been to the House during the past 12 years has likely been greeted by Zoe and deftly pointed in the right direction. Those who have been around the Capitol longer remember when she was an administrative assistant for former representative and Democratic Leader Bob McLendon in the 1990s. A very few might even remember when she worked for the first time at the House in 1958 as a secretary for the Appropriations Committee and later as a page.
Much like the second regular session of the state’s centennial Legislature, Zoe has closed up shop at the Capitol. But to hear long-time legislators and lobbyists tell it, the Capitol is losing much more than a receptionist: It is losing the Mother of the House, a historian and a part of its personality.
“It’s kind of like an island in a sea of sharks,” lobbyist Barry Aarons said, his voice radiating fondness as he described Zoe. “When you walk in, you know you’re going to smile at some point because you are going to see her.”
Aarons, who has been a lobbyist for 41 years, said he can’t remember the first time he met Zoe because it feels like she has always been there. “She’s just the first friendly face you see when you walk in the House,” he said. ”She’s always got a kind word and she is always willing to chat about the day.”
Zoe is an institution, an elegant, composed and perfectly accessorized presence that directed traffic in the House lobby for as long as Bobbie Sparrow, president of the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association, can remember.
And while the idea that Zoe was a near timeless fixture at the Capitol may be a common sentiment, in reality, the Missouri native spent 30 years in other occupations between her two stints in the House.
After leaving the House to work for two years in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Carl Hayden in 1962, Zoe traveled the country with Bonanza and Western Airlines, catered to VIPs at Western’s 12 airport Horizon Clubs, and planned lavish parties for Club Corporation of America resorts.
In 1969, Zoe married one of Western’s pilots, Earl “Spin” Spinner, and her child from her first marriage joined his two children from his first marriage. Spin was a pilot and, she recalled, giggling, was also her boyfriend’s roommate when they first met at a party. “That was tacky of me. Never date roommates,” she advised.
Working for Western Airlines, Zoe rubbed elbows with the likes of actor Robert Stack from “The Untouchables.”
“He was gorgeous,” she said. She also met the original “Bond girl” Ursula Andress, Charlton Heston and her favorite member of Western Airlines’ Board of Directors — Cary Grant, who was also “gorgeous.”
As a party planner for Club Corporation of America, she plied her famous good nature to calm the nerves of anxious mothers-of-the-bride, and once she even brought sandwiches and coffee to President Gerald Ford’s exhausted Secret Service detail while the 38th president gave a speech at a charity ball. “They were really nice guys and very appreciative,” she said.
But when asked what her favorite job has been, what she would keep if she had to give up her other professional experiences, Zoe didn’t hesitate. “This is history,” she said, glancing around the House lobby. “The other stuff was more frosting. This is the cake.”
In addition to her three children, six grandchildren and six (but soon to be seven) great-grandchildren, Zoe said she considers the people of the House her second family.
For many, the feeling is most definitely mutual.
“To those of us who love and know her well, she is kind of like the mom away from home,” Sparrow said. Zoe always wants to know how you are doing, she said, and if you have a headache or a cough, Zoe starts searching for aspirin or a cough drop.
Her matriarchal style is hard to miss. One moment she’s helping a newcomer find a committee room, the next she’s asking a lobbyist who has been battling a cold how he’s feeling today. In doing so, she notes that he is beginning to sound much better. “He’s using his deep voice today,” she tells an observer before promptly breaking into a smile and chuckling.
Her laughter is telling of what lurks just beneath the demeanor of the impeccably mannered great-grandmother: a playful sense of humor and a very sharp wit.
“(She) gets all the inside jokes, and she can throw one-liners at any given time,” Sparrow said.
While Sparrow wouldn’t divulge Zoe’s jokes, McLendon had no such compunction, and chuckled as he recalled one of Zoe’s more memorable remarks, which she delivered while coming out of anesthesia from a surgery to repair her knee. She had slipped while shopping, and McLendon had gone to visit her in the hospital. A nurse asked if he was Zoe’s husband, McLendon recalled, and before he could answer, Zoe, with her eyes still closed, shot back, “Only during the day.”
Laughing, McLendon said it was a great comeback — but also a fair assessment of the way she took care of him at the Legislature for about eight years, from 1992 until he retired from elected office in 2000. “I always expect the best of people, but she went above and beyond any expectations I could have had,” he said.
Art Hamilton, a 13-term Democratic representative — many of them spent across the room from his best friend, McLendon — said that Zoe’s humor is part of what makes her exceptional. “The job of working in that building is one that can easily put a frown on your face and keep it there because everyone wants something from you,” he said.
But for Zoe, Hamilton said being perpetually friendly comes naturally. “Her smile was infectious. People who came in angry, if they saw Zoe, they left with a smile,” he said. “They might have been angry again by the time they got to me, but they left smiling if they spent any time with Zoe.”
Besides being an endless wellspring of cheer, Hamilton said Zoe is a priceless guardian of legislative knowledge and Capitol history, joining women like former Gov. Rose Mofford and the late lawmaker Polly Rosenbaum. It was Rosenbaum who hired Zoe in 1958. Zoe didn’t just welcome people to the House, Hamilton said, she tried to make everyone proud of it as an institution.
“That is a difficult thing to replace, and it is almost impossible to teach,” he said. “She makes them feel like the House is a place where they have a right to be and a right to be served.”
For the most part, Zoe said, serving the public has come easily.
“To me, the desk, I treat it like I would my home,” she said. “I want to make people welcome and I want to help them and most of all I want them to be comfortable.”
But recently, more and more “lemons” are walking through the front door of the House, she said, recalling that the only time she has ever needed help from House security was during one of the protests over SB1070, the anti-illegal immigration law.
“Protests at the Capitol are definitely getting worse, more frequent, more unruly,” she said, noting that, while protestors have always been passionate, they weren’t ever so unruly as they are today.
The political dynamic of the House has changed as well, she said, shifting from a strong coalition of Democrats and Republicans who used to work together and make compromises to a Republican majority that has no incentive to make concessions.
Regardless of what has changed over the years, Zoe was adamant that she has “loved every bit” of her time at the House. At the same time, she said she welcomes retirement.
“I want some Zoe time, I want some family time, I want to volunteer with an animal rescue group and we want to travel,” she said.
While Zoe has her plans to keep busy in retirement, Sparrow said the two of them have been joking about what will become of the House now that she’s gone.
“She’s been telling people, ‘Oh, you know, things will keep going.’ And yes, they will — but it won’t be the same without her,” Sparrow said. “It’s going to be hard to walk in there and not have her sitting there after all these years. For me, it is going to be really tough.”
While it may be impossible to replace Zoe, those who ply their trade in the House, such as lobbyist Aarons, and have become accustomed to her presence say all they can ask for is someone who will be kind, attentive and add a humanizing touch to the House.
“I think,” Aarons said, “that they will be trying to emulate her, but she is one of a kind and I can’t imagine anyone taking her place.”