‘Education runs so deep in the blood’: Carolyn Warner’s children remember their mom

Christi Warner Beyer heard the same thing over and over from strangers all her life: Her mother, Carolyn Warner, was like a mother to them. 

“Even though she had six kids, over my lifetime I cannot tell you how many people came up to me,” Beyer said. 

Warner, a fixture in Arizona politics, died this week at the age of 88. She was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in May, according to her family.

“She mentored so many people, took so many people under her wing,” Beyer said.  “She raised a generation of other people in multiple age brackets and still was doing it up to the end.” 

The chairwoman and founder of Corporate Education Consulting began her political career nearly 50 years ago as a Phoenix Union High School District governing board member. She became the first non-educator elected as state superintendent of public instruction, a post she held for 12 years. She ran for U.S. Senate in 1976 but lost the Democratic primary to Dennis DeConcini. 

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A decade later, Warner became the second woman in Arizona history to win her party’s nomination in the governor’s race, only to lose in the general election to Republican Evan Mecham.

Her children remember a woman of faith who was passionate about giving back to others and instilling those values into her kids.  

Raising six kids  

As Beyer tells it, it was lightly drizzling on a family road trip to Yellowstone when Warner ordered her six rambunctious kids and husband out of the car and told them to start jogging to the resort. 

“She was herding cats with that many kids,” she said. “What we found out years later is she was trying to exhaust all of this pent-up energy from driving… so we would arrive at the resort we were staying at in relatively exhausted states.” 

Warner had four daughters and two sons. Several ended up working in or around education, like her daughter Caron Lieber, who teaches at a community college in California. Lieber is now running for a seat on the local school board. 

“Of course, the last check she signed out of her checkbook was for my campaign,” Lieber said. 

Steven Van Warner, her son, said his mother taught him to be tough. He started reading philosophy as a little kid because of her. 

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“She instilled in me an incredible sense of integrity, especially in thinking and reading,” he said. 

They all remembered their mom’s integrity — she refused to use a state-issued car to drive them to school because she did not want to improperly use taxpayer resources, they said. 

Connie Pepple, one of her daughters, is on her local school board in California. Warner taught all four daughters that they could achieve anything as women.  

“Education runs so deep in the blood, you can’t help yourself,” she said. 

Warner was ahead of her time in focusing on technical education programs, in particular, Pepple said.

And she remembered a Methodist quote her mother often ended speeches with: 

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” 

‘She conveyed this natural warmth’

David Bolger started working with Warner at the state Department of Education in 1977 when she was just a few years into her tenure as state superintendent. He knew about her Senate run against DeConcini and said he’d thought it was a bad idea. 

So he brought it up in his job interview with Warner. 

“She said, ‘It was the dumbest damn thing I ever did,’ ” he remembered. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is somebody I can work with.’ ” 

Bolger worked alongside Warner for the next 41 years.

He worked on her gubernatorial campaign. After, they launched an education consulting firm together, Corporate Education Consulting, Inc. She traveled around the world speaking at conferences. 

She assumed a “businesslike” appearance with her hair always pulled back, Bolger recalled. But behind the stern appearance was a legendary sense of humor.

“Everybody she met was her new best friend and she just conveyed this natural warmth,” he said. 

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She was a private person outside of her public persona, he said. Gardening offered a relief from that persona. Warner also adored reading anything from Agatha Christie. 

Warner worked hard to raise the profile of the area’s community colleges at a time when they were thought of as “second-rate,” Bolger said. And at the Department of Education, she emphasized the importance of teachers in the state’s public school system. 

“She made sure that the Department of Education operated in a very nonpartisan way,” he said. “She didn’t ask anyone’s registration when they hired somebody. She wanted to know if they could do the job.” 

Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard wrote in a note shared by Warner’s family that she was “tireless” in lending her voice to causes and candidates. 

“I will never forget as a teenager when I first heard her remarkable voice, I believe it was at a program at NAU.  From that moment, I was captivated by her soaring eloquence and ability to give an extra dimension of meaning to the people and events around us,” he wrote. 

Warner’s longtime friend Margaret Mullen, former director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, said she often reaped the rewards of Warner’s garden, like fresh canned tomatoes. 

“What few people know is she was a remarkable friend,” she said. “She was always there for you … She was the kind of person who you could never do something for without her reciprocating tenfold.” 

Memorial service information 

A memorial service is planned at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Warner’s beloved First United Methodist Church, 5510 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix, according to the family. 

Republic reporters Chase Hunter and Maria Polletta contributed to this article. 

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