Crawling on her stomach through Kartchner Caverns with former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Betsy Bolding was grateful for her childhood summers scrambling over boulders in Iron Springs, near Prescott.

Bolding, 74, has her parents and grandparents to thank for those summers — and for her deep involvement in the city and state.

As the first director of the governor’s Southern Arizona office, Bolding accompanied Babbitt on a secret tour of the newly discovered cave in the 1980s. Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, the men who found the cave, wanted to properly protect it before making it public knowledge and led a group that included the governor, Bolding, a University of Arizona geologist, members of the Kartchner family and Babbitt’s two sons. One of them lost a shoe in the mud.

“We climbed down into this thing on our stomachs, and it was really wild,” Bolding says.

It was a step toward protecting the caverns as a state park.

This is her life’s work. From a position at the governor’s office to her involvement in countless local organizations to a 25-year career with Tucson Electric Power that ended in March, Bolding’s passion is to preserve and serve this state.

“I love Arizona,” she says. “I love its beauty. I love everything about it, because I grew up here.”

FAMILY ROOTS

Bolding’s Midwestern grandparents moved to small ranch between Phoenix and Glendale before Arizona’s statehood. Her grandmother taught in a one-room school house, and Bolding remembers hearing her mother talk about visiting Phoenix when Arizona became a state.

She rolled bandages with her grandmother for the American Red Cross and tagged along when her mother and grandmother volunteered at well-baby clinics.

She learned to love the arts through those trips to the city. Sometimes, they caught a ballet or theater performance.

“You have the men who held elected office and ran things, but then you have the women who settled the communities,” Bolding says. “They built the libraries and they taught in schools and they did the well-baby clinics. They are the ones who made the communities livable places.”

Her family talked politics at the table. Her grandmother, a staunch Republican and teetotaler, worked on campaigns and adored Barry Goldwater. A photo of him still hangs in the family cabin in Iron Springs, alongside recent additions of Babbitt and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Bolding’s grandfather was on a water board in the Phoenix area and made decisions about farmers’ water use.

“I would sit under his desk and listen to him talk,” she says. “Later in life, I realized why people brought us big crates of lettuce and buckets of eggs. It’s always politics.”

Her grandparents honeymooned in Iron Springs and then purchased a cabin there in 1936. Fathers took the train up on weekends, but “during the week, it was just dogs, kids and moms,” Bolding says. They went for 13 weeks and took 13 chickens.

There, in the cooler temperatures, her family met others with Arizona roots. She “palled around” with future supermarket magnate Eddie Basha and remembers a tennis tournament with the O’Connor family shortly after Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We used to laugh if she called the ball out,” Bolding says. “There’s no arguing with a Supreme Court judge.”

POLITICAL ITCH

The University of Arizona brought Bolding to Tucson.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English and got a teaching job at Palo Verde High Magnet School.

Later, as a Santa Rita High School teacher, she started doing news interviews part time for Channel 11, where she met politicians such as Babbitt. In 1978, she would co-chair his campaign and become the first director of the governor’s Southern Arizona office, where she worked for eight years.

Jan Lesher, a deputy county administrator for Pima County, met Bolding on the Babbitt campaign.

“She is one of those women that once she gets someplace, she makes sure that other women get something as well,” Lesher says. “When she was in the governor’s office, she was always finding boards and commissions and things for the governor to appoint a Southern Arizona woman, so they could get to Phoenix to understand the Legislature’s process.”

Following her work in Babbitt’s office, Bolding briefly became the director of Tucson Tomorrow Inc., a problem-solving organization that focused on social and economic issues, and eventually ended up at Tucson Electric Power as the manager of consumer affairs.

But politics called again. When Mayor George Miller left office, he encouraged her to run in 1999.

“It was a great experience. I’m glad I did it,” says Bolding, a lifelong Democrat. She’s also glad she didn’t get elected.

“Being the idealist that I am, I would have been really disappointed,” she says, adding that since then she has seen the challenges and limits that a mayor faces.

“A FORCE OF NATURE”

When Leigh Spencer, the program coordinator for the UA’s Women’s Studies Advisory Council and Women’s Plaza of Honor, met Bolding nearly a decade ago, she didn’t realize the extent of her community involvement.

“I worked with her for over a year and did a Google search on her before I realized she is a complete force of nature,” Spencer says. “If I had known, I probably would have been afraid to talk to her.”

The number of organizations that Bolding has supported over the years is formidable — The Loft Cinema; Arizona Public Media; Prescott College; Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation; Southern Arizona Green Chamber of Commerce; Habitat for Humanity; the UA’s Cooper Center for Environmental Learning; the UA’s Women’s Studies Advisory Council.

In her fledgling retirement, she doesn’t sit on all those boards anymore and is “no longer the president of anything.” She’s held that post on the boards of the Arizona Theatre Company, The Loft Cinema, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, the Women’s Studies Advisory Council and Prescott College. In 2002, she was named Woman of the Year by the city’s chamber of commerce. And that still doesn’t cover everything.

“I’m just interested in a lot of things, and I have a lot of curiosity, and it’s a curse,” she says. “I can’t go someplace without making a suggestion, and then I find myself drawn in.”

Lawrence Lucero, Bolding’s recent boss at TEP, jokingly says she “hoards organizations.” To fit it all in, she worked long hours.

“If I came in on a Saturday or Sunday to work or catch up on stuff or stayed late, invariably she would come toddling in,” says Lucero, senior director for government relations and economic development for TEP. “That’s so Betsy.”

It’s not uncommon to receive a late-night email from Bolding — who then scolds prompt responders for not being asleep.

BETSY BOLDING DAY

In February, Supervisor Sharon Bronson proclaimed March 1 to be “Betsy Bolding Day” in honor of Bolding’s retirement and dedication to the community.

Her boss sent her to the meeting that day with orders to represent TEP and support the company’s Trees for Tucson program.

“Bronson starts reading this proclamation and only then does it dawn on her that this is about her,” Lucero says, laughing. “She is behind me, and I hear this gasp, and then she says, ‘I’m going to kill you.’”

LOOKING TO RETIREMENT

Bolding has plans for retirement: humanities lectures at the UA, more movies (in theaters, not at home where distractions abound) and finding a good reading chair. She is raising her teenaged granddaughter — after raising three children, she finds parenting different this time around.

She doesn’t think she will ever truly retire. And Tucson isn’t about to let her go quietly, anyways.

On March 1, more than 100 people showed up for her retirement party at The Shanty. On May 16, the UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences will present her with an honorary degree.

Even though she’s no longer working, she still seems to be everywhere. And she seems to know everyone.

“The best fundraiser in the world would be to auction off Betsy Bolding’s Rolodex,” says The Shanty’s owner, Bill Nugent, a longtime friend. “We would make millions of dollars.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.