Wayne Fox’s best moment at Northern Arizona University had to be culled from more than 30 years, so it took some time.
When he settled on one, he started—and ended—the story with a laugh.
“One of my proudest moments was when I was teaching an intermediate financial accounting class—scintillating, right?” he interrupted himself. “At the end of the semester I got a standing ovation. I’ll never forget that.”
Fox, director of the Alliance Bank Business Outreach Center in the W.A. Franke College of Business, retired from NAU Friday after 34 years. When he moved to Flagstaff in the early 1980s, he planned to open an accounting practice and teach a night class at NAU on the side. A meeting with the dean led to a full-time teaching job, and other opportunities just kept coming.
Since then, he’s become an assistant dean, taken over the Road Scholar program and turned it into the largest affiliate in the country; created the Arizona Rural Health Initiative; found funding for and then kept the business outreach center running for almost 20 years; and runs the annual Economic Outlook Conference every November, which is NAU’s largest outreach to the business community. The center’s programs affect about 10,000 people annually and touch almost every aspect of life in Northern Arizona, including recreation, hospitality, transit, cost of living, Native American issues and more.
It has been, to use Fox’s word, scintillating.
A love for data
It should come as no surprise that an accountant likes numbers, spreadsheets and percentages. For Fox, though, that data was a way of life.
Tired of Long Beach, he and his wife, Lynn, looked at other options. He turned to his statistics, compiling lists of best cities to live in with fewer than 100,000 people, comparing cost of living, schools and other information. They shortlisted Santa Fe, New Mexico, and drove down to check it out.
It didn’t fit.
“I’m a little too blue collar for Santa Fe, I think,” he said.
On their way back to Long Beach, the family stayed in Sedona with Lynn’s parents. They swung through Flagstaff, driving through neighborhoods and enjoying the view. It felt like home, Fox said. The rest is history.
He’s never lost that love for data. Much of what Fox and his team at ABBOC do is collect and interpret data, studying topics from the financial impact of tourism and NAU students on the region to the tax benefit NAU alumni add to the state to the continued costs of forest fires in northern Arizona. Three of the four arms of ABBOC—the Arizona Hospitality Research and Resource Center, Arizona Rural Policy Institute and Center for American Indian Economic Development—perform studies for a variety of institutions to give stakeholders, including people who make policies for the region, a better picture of the economic causes and effects for Arizona.
“Wayne’s work has been critical in helping regional policymakers such as myself use data and sound analysis to develop and implement public policy initiatives,” said Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor and an officer in Sustainable Economic Development Initiative (SEDI), which Fox had a hand in founding. “His wealth of knowledge, understanding of the region and sound methodologies make his work critical in creating a prosperous, inclusive and vibrant future for our region.”
Fox also relies on data to measure his progress. When he started, he had one employee. Last year he had 70. When he took over the Office of Management Development, his predecessor grossed just more than $80,000 in fees. Now it’s at $6 million. When he took on the Road Scholar program, then known as Elderhostel, NAU had one program and participants bunked in Old Main. Now it’s the largest Road Scholar program in the country, with more than 130,000 from throughout the United States participating.
It’s a pretty good return on investment, considering he was never supposed to take over this all-encompassing office. When his predecessor left, Fox was head of the search committee to find a replacement.
“I couldn’t get anyone to take the job, but the more I heard about it I said, ‘I can do that,’” Fox said; he was looking for a change from the classroom by then. “I fell in love with this program.”
Fox’s legacy is broad, but the growth of the Road Scholar program at NAU is high on the list of successes he’s achieved.
The program offers boots-on-the-ground educational opportunities for non-college students throughout the country. NAU offers more than 50 programs, including backpacking or rafting through the Grand Canyon, doing yoga surrounded by the towering red rocks of Sedona, exploring the ancient Indian dwellings in Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly and other activities including ropes courses, spring training for Major League Baseball teams, star-gazing and bird watching.
Of the roughly 200 colleges and universities throughout the country who offer Road Scholar programs, NAU serves the most people, with more than 4,000 participants annually. Many of those participants, especially in the program’s early days, had never even heard of NAU. They were from the Midwest or the East Coast and wanted to explore the Grand Canyon. Road Scholar provided that opportunity.
“I’m proud of the lives my colleagues have touched through that program,” Fox said. “More than 130,000 people have had a good experience because of these programs. To build that and to put together the team that’s here doing that is rewarding for me.”
Finding a fit in the classroom
Fox was an accountant, not a teacher. But despite not planning to teach full-time, he found himself in a classroom in 1982 in front of a number of students to whom he was supposed to teach accounting.
Sherri Slayton, executive vice president, Alliance Bank of Arizona, remembered sitting in the classroom the day CPA Fox became Professor Fox.
“He came in on day one with copious notes that he had handwritten on yellow legal pads,” she said. “He
proceeded to start lecturing us from the notes, but after about 15-20 minutes he set aside the notes and just started teaching us what he clearly knew from his heart. He was a great teacher, and we loved learning from him.”
Slayton has continued working with Fox since that day, serving on a number of community boards with him and then acting as the liaison between NAU and Alliance Bank in making the center, known affectionately throughout the building as Wayne’s World, the Alliance Bank Business Outreach Center.
Though he hasn’t been in the classroom for several years, Fox still has an impact in classrooms throughout Flagstaff. He and Lynn started the Teacher Awards for Sustainable Curriculum, which SEDI executive director Eric Marcus said recognizes innovative educational approaches to sustainability in all disciplines. It exemplifies that for which Fox stands.
“Wayne has long recognized the importance of economic development in northern Arizona and even more importantly wanted to ensure a resilient economy is linked to social equity and ecological health,” Marcus said. “Whenever I have needed guidance or assistance in a community-level endeavor, Wayne has been there to share his expertise.”
The Foxes have no plans to drive off into the sunset.
Fox said they have some trips planned—the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, a guided steelhead salmon fishing trip along the Rogue River in Oregon, Arlington, Virginia, to see grandchildren—but they’ll be around. He’ll still be on community boards and at the Economic Outlook Conference in November. He might even pick up that night class.
He will be busy, thanks to a lesson learned the summer after he finished graduate school, when the two of them bought a pop top camper and drove from Long Beach to Vancouver, British Columbia, then across Canada to Nova Scotia.
“I learned at a young age that I needed to be productive. I just can’t suck up air all day,” he said. “That was a great thing to learn at a young age. It served me well.”