Why is former Governor George WP Hunt’s grave so special?
The white pyramid that sits on a hill in Papago Park overlooking Phoenix and the Phoenix Zoo is the mausoleum where Arizona’s first governor and his family are buried. Governor George WP Hunt served a total of seven terms as Governor of Arizona, not all of them consecutively, beginning in 1912 when Arizona was granted statehood.
When Governor Hunt’s wife, Helen Duett Ellison Hunt, died in 1931, Hunt commissioned Del E. Webb Construction Co. to build the pyramid in her honor. Completed in 1932, the tomb was not far from the family home on East McDowell Road. Hunt chose the pyramid design because he had been impressed with Egyptian pyramids while traveling with his wife.
In addition to the Governor and his wife, family members also interred in the pyramid include their only child, Virginia, and her second husband, William E. Frund; Mrs Hunt’s parents, Jessie and Susan Ellison, and Ellison’s other daughter, Lena Ellison.
In 2009, Governor George WP Hunt’s Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) undertook a major renovation of the pyramid, under the able leadership of Helen Bernhard of Phoenix. When DAR members visited the grave to dedicate a plaque to Hunt’s great-great-grandfather, who had been a Revolutionary War soldier, they noticed the pyramid was in very poor condition. state. So they took it upon themselves to get the proper permission and raise the necessary funds to restore it to good condition.
Along with Bernhard and the DAR, Gary Banker, owner of Banker Insulation Company in Phoenix, embraced the project as his mission. These two dedicated volunteers invited Messinger Mortuaries to get involved, as licensed funeral directors were required to be present when the grave was opened. Bill Gumbert and I were honored to participate.
The first thing our small team had to do was explain the proposed project to Governor Hunt’s successors and get their permission. Gary generously flew the four of us to Escondido, California to meet the Governor’s grandson, Hunt Brannen, and his wife. They shared interesting stories with us and granted us the necessary authority for the work.
The cost of the project was $76,000. The DAR held two quilt and ornament sales, raising approximately $8,000 for benches and displays. The Phoenix Parks Department contributed $35,000 from the Parks and Preserves Initiative, thanks to Helen’s insistence. Gary contributed the rest, with his company doing the actual rebuilding work.
The exterior, which was chipped and cracked, was replaced. The top of the pyramid had disappeared, so it was replaced. The interior of the tomb was cleaned, the coffin shelves were upgraded, and the exterior door and other items were repaired or replaced. The iron fence around the exterior has been redone, along with a new desert landscape. New and old plaques honoring the hunts have been reinstalled.
George W. P. Hunt: Arizona’s first governor served 7 terms. here’s why
Bill and I were present whenever the tomb was opened and work was done inside the pyramid. Every step of the project was undertaken with great respect and care.
The public had their first access to the educational elements of the renovated tomb in April 2009. Governor George WP Hunt’s Chapter of the DAR and Gary Banker deserve immense credit for taking on this task and for the high degree of integrity they have maintained throughout the effort.
Raised on a local dairy farm, former Scottsdale City Councilman (1971-76), state legislator (1979-85) and honored oral historian Paul Messinger founded Messinger Mortuaries in 1959. He can be reached at 480- 860-2300 or 480-945-9521.