Ernest William McFarland (1894-1984), known throughout his career as “Mac,” served as a U.S. senator, governor of Arizona, and ultimately chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, but millennials, baby boomers, and even many seniors have difficulty recalling his name or his numerous accomplishments. His life story should inspire Arizonans. His career in politics, law, as a television executive, and agribusiness titan remain unparalleled.
Born in the Pottawatomie Strip of Oklahoma in 1894, he migrated to Arizona after service in World War I, seeking to broaden his opportunities. These came quickly and with a tireless work ethic, thirst for education, and the foresight to settle in Florence, Arizona—after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1921—he flourished. The growth of irrigated agriculture and his legal insights into this developing field, helped launch his political career in Pinal County as a New Deal Democrat. He soon found his way to the Pinal County Superior Court, where he served as judge from 1934-1940.
In the latter year, in what many considered an audacious move, he entered the U.S. Senate race against a twenty-eight year incumbent, Henry F. Ashurst. The colorful Ashurst underestimated the youthful attorney and jurist, remaining in Washington during the primary, while McFarland blanketed the state speaking about water issues and the war in Europe. McFarland defeated the incumbent by a three-to-one margin in the primary and went on to victory in the general election.
Father of the GI Bill of Rights (1944)
McFarland made his mark in the Senate. He sponsored over forty veterans’ bills, but his greatest contribution rested in drafting the portions of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944–the “GI Bill”–that gave veterans access to education through tuition assistance, zero-down home loans, and low interest business loans. It improved the lives of nearly 50 million ex-servicemen and women, along with millions of their dependents. According to one historian, the GI Bill generated 450,000 trained engineers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 238,000 teachers, and more than 1 million other college-educated professionals.
Millions also took advantage of the GI Bill’s home loan guaranty. For example, from 1944 to 1952, the Veterans Administration backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans. Historians have long considered the GI Bill a congressional landmark—a progenitor of the vast, prosperous middle class that distinguished American society from others during the second half of the twentieth century to the present. Arguably, the GI Bill, signed into law on June 22, 1944, was the most successful social legislation ever written and Mac was, in fact, “Father of the GI Bill.”
Adversity and Opportunity
McFarland won re-election to the U.S. Senate with ease in 1946 and during his second term he rose to majority leader (1951-1953). In 1950 and 1951 he teamed up with senior Senator Carl Hayden to pass bills for the Central Arizona Project (CAP), aimed at transporting Arizona’s purported share of Colorado River water to the central portions of the state, but Arizona’s congressional delegation was stymied by California’s superior numbers in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless these efforts laid a foundation for the Supreme Court case, Arizona v California (1952-1963)—which determined water rights from the Colorado River system–and the eventual passage of the CAP bill in 1968. Meanwhile, Republican upstart Barry Goldwater defeated McFarland in the 1952 and 1958 Senate elections, signaling the rise of conservative political hegemony in Arizona. McFarland, undaunted after his defeat in 1952, ran for governor in 1954 and was elected. His election to that office proved auspicious.
As governor (1955-1959), McFarland oversaw the state’s administration of the Arizona v California Supreme Court case. In his executive role he demonstrated wisdom and leadership. Incredibly he became the first sitting governor in U.S. history to argue and win a motion before the Supreme Court when, on December 12, 1955, he convinced justices to keep the Upper Basin States–Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico–out of the Arizona v California lawsuit. The night prior to his argument he stayed up until 4:00 a.m. meticulously organizing, checking and rechecking his thoughts before committing them to memory and much to the horror of future archivists and historians, casting crumpled pages into the wastebasket.
Then, on the evening of March 17, 1957, McFarland called Phoenix attorney Mark Wilmer, who, after he hung up the phone, turned to his family and said, “I might be doing the biggest thing in history, or I might get run out of town.” McFarland had decided to replace the lead attorney in Arizona v California with Wilmer because the governor concluded correctly that Arizona’s case was in “a hell of a mess.” McFarland moved quickly and assertively to chart a new course for his state. Wilmer changed the nature and direction of Arizona’s legal contentions and won a victory for Arizona in the most important legal decision in Western water law. The positive outcome resulted in the construction of CAP and the brave new water world of agencies and institutions that govern our most precious natural resource. Many historians consider this the most important development since statehood and McFarland played a central role in it.
Arizona Supreme Court and Beyond
After his governorship, in which he also created the State Parks system, McFarland returned to law practice. Then in 1964, he was elected to the Arizona Supreme Court. He participated in the Miranda v Arizona decision, wrote 315 opinions, and served as Chief Justice (1968-1970), completing a political “grand slam.” His interests in the private sector continued during his post-congressional career. McFarland became interested in the nation’s new communications technology, television. He and his friends formed the Arizona Television Company in 1955 and founded KTVK. He commented that he chose the call letters so that “TV” would be the station’s middle name. In his seventies he served as director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and remained active in retirement until he passed away in Phoenix on June 8, 1984. Perhaps the former dean of Stanford Law School, Charles J. Meyers, placed Mac’s contributions in proper perspective: “Ernest W. McFarland’s career as a prominent and respected chief executive, legislator, judge, lawyer, and businessman may be unprecedented in the country.”
Jack L. August, Jr., Ph.D. is Historian and Administrator of Institutional Advancement, Arizona Capitol Museum.