Tucson history courses through Dianne Bret Harte’s veins.

She’s lived it. Seen it up close and has talked up Tucson’s historical legacy. But more than talk, Bret Harte has worked to promote and preserve it.

She is deeply enamored with her hometown.

In January, the one-time journalist retired as executive director the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation. It was a role she enjoyed for 19 years.

It was the perfect job, she said: “I was given the freedom in this job to make decisions, something that few people have.”

The 84-year-old Bret Harte was given a splendid sendoff April 15, like a brilliant Tucson desert sunset, at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center. Her three children, foundation trustees and friends thanked Bret Harte for her devotion.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, the foundation’s new executive director, said Bret Harte demonstrated her dedication to cultivating and celebrating what makes Tucson unique and special.

“She’s incredible. She’s a treasure trove of stories about Tucson and her own life’s story, which is a pretty interesting one,” said Pedersen, a former journalist with the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Citizen, and president of the Arizona Education Network.

Bret Harte oversaw the distribution of $7 million to 500 grant recipients, ranging from Mission San Xavier del Bac and other historical buildings to students, theaters and film. One of the foundation’s recipients is the UA Poetry Center, which will name its after-school matinee program for students after Bret Harte.

“Dianne is all about the written word,” Pedersen said. “She’s a very powerful writer herself.”

Bret Harte’s journalism career began in 1954, after she graduated from the UA. She went to work for the Tucson Citizen, the former afternoon daily, and later for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

Newspapers ran in her blood. Her grandfather, George Smalley, was the editor of the then-Tucson Daily Citizen, at the turn of the 1900s. Years later, Bret Harte’s mother, Yndia Smalley Moore, wrote a column on local and state history for the Citizen, after serving as director of the Tucson Fine Arts Society, the predecessor of the Tucson Museum of Art, and the Arizona Historical Society.

Bret Harte, who grew up speaking Spanish, absorbed her family’s stories and local history. She said she and her friends loved nothing more than listening to her grandfather talk about his travels across the state when he worked for the Arizona territorial government after leaving the Citizen.

Bret Harte would eventually join the Arizona Historical Society, editing its newsletter, followed by 17 years at the UA in different positions. She retired in 1997, and became the foundation’s director.

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That’s when she took flight as director of the foundation created by Jane Harrison Ivancovich, who died in 1991. Ivancovich had developed a deep interest in local history, especially San Xavier, and she left a $6 million endowment.

Bret Harte, with her knowledge, community connections and personal passion, kept the foundation focused on its mission of preservation and education, Pedersen said.

The foundation gave grants to the Casa Cordova at the Tucson Museum of Art, the Fox Theatre, the Rialto Theatre, Mission Gardens at Sentinel Peak, the Presidio downtown, the Mariachi Miracle documentary film project, the Benedictine convent on North Country Club Road, and barrio youth oral history projects and Voices, a one-time high school journalism project. Another foundation beneficiary was a scholars program at the UA’s Honors College, which supported students’ studies abroad.

While Bret Harte is rooted in the past, Pedersen said, “she lives every moment in the present and fosters the future.”

For Bret Harte, being the foundation director was not a job.

“I had 19 years of fun,” she said, adding that she will remain with the foundation as a trustee.

In that fun, however, Bret Harte hopes she leaves a legacy for others to follow and a challenge to champion Tucson’s history and efforts to keep it alive.

“You really need to give back when you can,” she said.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@tucson.com or at 573-4187.