Opha was an original, and that's no tall tale

2012-02-05T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T11:23:54Z Opha was an original, and that's no tall taleBonnie Henry Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 05, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Maybe it was all in the delivery. Maybe it was all in the story. Or maybe it was both.

Whatever the case, nobody could spin tale after tale of what it was like growing up in Tucson during the hardscrabble '30s like Opha (pronounced Ofee) Probasco, who died Wednesday at 91.

Whether it was scrubbing algae out of the old Mission Pool or hauling firewood to customers after school, Opha had a story to tell - stories that would eventually tumble pell-mell fashion into his book, "Keeping Our History Alive."

That he did, particularly when it came to his own brand of history - one that stretched back to 1925. That was the year his parents, Roy and Allie Probasco and their five kids left their Colorado farm headed for Tucson. For good.

"Dad had TB. The doctor said to come here," Opha told me back in 2005.

Once here, Roy Probasco plunked down $12 an acre for 80 acres of raw desert land near Mission Road and Ajo Way. For a time the family made do in a wood-sided tent. Meanwhile, Roy started building a few cabins on the property, rented out for two bucks a night. One, with a second-story, became the family home.

Before long, Roy was buying wood from the Indians heading from Sells to Tucson to sell their firewood to a town that still cooked and heated that way. What Roy couldn't use to fire up his water heater - or his Prohibition-era still - he sold, using Opha and his twin brother, Okey, as delivery boys. "Every day after school and all day Saturday," Opha would later recall.

After the Depression settled in, the elder Probasco used his wood to barter for everything from haircuts for his kids to new clothing at J.C. Penney, which still used a wood-burning furnace.

But not was all grim reality. Opha and Okey, who died in 2007, eventually got their own horses, which they rode into town five miles away to catch the latest flick at the Fox Tucson. "We stabled them in a corral near the movie," Opha later told me. Cost: Nickel a horse. Older sister Wyvonna Mahan also made it to the Fox after the streets were paved, rolling all the way on a pair of skates.

Summers were spent at the nearby Mission Pool, where the Probasco kids scrubbed out the scum and served as lifeguards. "I've still got nine or 10 medals from the races we all entered," Wyvonna told me during a call last week.

Mission Pool would be the first of many stories Opha would recount to me, told on the asphalt of a shopping center parking lot that had once been the site of the pool. No matter. Somehow I could still see the crowds, hear the splash, feel the cool.

Not long before he self-published his book, Opha told that same story to Bruce Dinges, director of publications for the Arizona Historical Society. "He talked, I listened," said Dinges. "By the time he was done, I felt I could go out and take a dip in that pool. He was a great storyteller with a real zest for life."

Twice, Opha took his book and his stories to the historical society's annual book fair. "He was in his element talking to people," said Dinges. "People came to the fairs because of him."

Other than the five summers when he worked his father's wheat farm in Colorado after World War II, Opha lived in Southern Arizona his entire adult life, doing everything from working for the railroad to driving a truck.

"By the time I was 16 years old, I was working alongside grown men and collecting the same pay, $5 for a 10-hour day," Opha would write in his book. "We were building dirt reservoirs for all of the ranchers on both sides of the Sasabe Road southwest of Tucson. I was with them for a year and a half, sleeping in a tent on the ground. We had one gas lantern, and the cook had it."

By the late '40s, Opha and his horse were putting in regular appearances at the annual rodeo parade - and at least one appearance at the old Mission Club Bar. "Someone opened the door and in we went," Opha wrote in his book, adding, "After riding out of the bar, I had to do a little stable work."

Three of the streets south and west of where Mission Road meets Ajo Way still carry the family name in one form or another, in an area served by the Drexel Heights Fire District. When the district was planning its 50th anniversary celebration in 2004, it didn't take it long to involve Opha, who still lived down the street from one of its five stations.

"We were looking for speakers, and one of the firefighters mentioned Opha," said Tracy Koslowski, 36, a district fire marshal. "I tracked him down. He talked about what the neighborhood used to be like, about his family's property. After that, we started going to lunch every week and he told us these amazing stories. I started saying, 'You need to write a book.' "

And so he did, first in longhand, and then on a typewriter, pounding out each page using the ol' hunt-and-peck method.

Besides his way with a story, Opha also knew his way around a kitchen, cooking up batches of cookies that won him first prize at the Pima County and Arizona State fairs.

Every so often, he used to drop by the office with yet another bag of the savory treats, usually serving them up with yet another story that just had to be told. I'll miss the cookies. I'll miss the stories even more.

Opha Probasco is survived by his sister, Wyvonna Mahan, and a host of friends.

Opha Probasco

Memorial services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Funeraria del Angel South Lawn, 5401 S. Park Ave.

Copies of his book will be given out at the service. A Spanish-language version is also available for $15 through Mexican newspaper executive Luis Healy at 619-993-4347.

For those unable to attend the service, a permanent online memorial will be available afterward at www.mem.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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