Wiring Tucson for 58 Years: Southern Arizona Electric
By Cassie Anderson
Walter Novak started a Tucson company with his contractor’s license, two partners, and a green and black pickup truck in 1962. Southern Arizona Electric, Inc. began on a shoestring budget, using his life-savings of $1,500. But Walter did have an ace in the hole: an unforgettable advertising pitch: “You Phone Us – We’ll Wire You.”
Within a year, Walter had bought out his partners, Hank Rave and Bob Conklin, and Southern Arizona Electric became a family business. The company thrived for 16 years until a crisis threatened its very existence. That's when Walter’s daughter, Andrea “Andee” Leisner, unexpectedly stepped forth. This compelling story is about a long-time, family-run business in Tucson and a fearless woman who became a pioneer in the state’s electrical industry.
In 1956, Walter relocated from Chicago to the Old Pueblo with his wife Gertrude and their two children, Andrea and Laurence. The family moved to join Gertrude’s brother, Ed Chesin, who returned to Tucson after being stationed there during World War II. During the conflict, Chesin flew combat missions with the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group of fighter pilots battling the Japanese over China.
Gertrude’s brother and their parents, Ben and Reva Chesin, had started Chesin Construction, which built subdivisions and shopping centers in Tucson.
Walter worked as a teamster in the Windy City for the Chicago Sun-Times, which created a job for him in Tucson. He would pick up the Chicago newspaper from a plane and deliver it to hotels and residences throughout the city. Walter decided to learn a trade after hearing about a union apprenticeship from an electrical contractor who worked for Chesin Construction. Walter’s decision was fortuitous, as he would join an industry that was set to boom.
The National Apprenticeship Standards for the Electrical Construction Industry was established in 1941, a collaborative effort of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), and the Federal Committee on Apprenticeship. In 1959, the Skill Improvement and Safety departments were established, a timely occurrence with the trade’s technological advances, including nuclear energy.
The Tucson IBEW Local 570's business manager at the time was Horace Bounds. He instilled the importance of the brotherhood fraternity and what it meant to be a skilled union electrician during his 21-year tenure. Walter attended two electronics classes taught by A.R. Stelle at the Tucson Vocational High School.
In 1962, Walter started Southern Arizona Electric, and within a year, it became a family business. Gertrude and Andee, who had been Walter’s study partners during his apprenticeship, became the office manager and bookkeeper. They also provided an extra pair of hands for projects. Laurence also worked at a young age for the family business.
Andee loved the family business, including getting her hands dirty working with her father. One memorable project was working on the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Southern Arizona Electric was installing a tracking satellite and a big alternator, and her jobs were to pound grounding rods into the dirt and painting pipes. She enjoyed this experience, even though the exhausting and repetitious work took all day.
Andee’s husband, Jim Leisner, was drawn into the electrical industry, too. He went through the apprenticeship program with assistance from his bride and became a journeyman working with his father-in-law. The Leisner’s would have a son and two daughters.
In 1978, Walter became ill and died three weeks later. Without hesitation, Andee stepped in to fill his shoes. Walter had put his heart into Southern Arizona Electric, and she was determined to do the same. There were few women in construction at that time, but that didn’t derail her ambitions. In 1978, she obtained her license and became the first female electrical contractor in southern Arizona.
The job proved challenging. “And there were always those individuals that attempted to make it harder,” she says.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Nov/Dec 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 6.