He’s been a restaurant worker, a corporate leader, a small business owner, legislator and judge, and now John McComish is getting used to a new occupation that none of those positions really prepared him for: a retiree.
McComish last month wound up a long public life by completing a three-month stint teaching newly elected justices of the peace what he learned on the bench in the previous four years.
At 76, he and Karen, his wife of more than 40 years, are settling into a new life out of the public eye, traveling and spending part of the year in New England, where their two children and their grandchildren live.
In December McComish completed his service as Kyrene Justice Court JP, opting not to seek reelection again.
Once that training was done, he put a period on a life of work that spans 63 years and began in his native Youngstown, Ohio, where he started in a family-owned restaurant doing various jobs at age 13.
Once he picked up his BA in English from Colgate University in 1985, McComish entered the corporate world, first as national sales manager at age 35 for Johnson and Johnson for eight years and then as vice president of Becton Dickinson, a manufacturer of medical devices.
Then, in 1989, he recalled, “I jumped off the corporate ladder.”
He moved to Ahwatukee, and opened a bookstore at 48th Street and Elliot Road, part of a franchise called The Little Professor.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. You don’t make a lot of money with a book store but it was a very nice business.”
The fun lasted until 1995, when McComish decided he no longer wanted to compete with giant book retailers like Borders – or the quickly advancing behemoth of Amazon and the havoc it wreaked on independents.
But before he closed the bookstore, McComish already was involved in what became the next big stage in his career: He had joined the fledgling Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce.
“The chamber went through a rough period of time back then,” he recalled, noting it was small and in kind of a no-man’s land. Struggling for support, it was basically on its own.
The Tempe Chamber couldn’t see helping a fledgling chamber in a different community and the Phoenix Chamber felt it shouldn’t exist at all, given that Ahwatukee is part of Phoenix.
“They said, ‘You’re part of the city of Phoenix’ and your members should be with us.’ And I said, ‘You haven’t done your job. If you have been doing your job we wouldn’t have needed to exist.’”
The Ahwatukee Chamber board offered him a one-day-a-week job as its director. As McComish quickly realized, part-time referred to his pay and not the number of hours the job would involve.
As the Chamber grew, he went from one day a week to a halftime position, then three-quarters until the organization became big enough and strong enough to merit a fulltime executive director.
He spent a great deal of his week recruiting Ahwatukee businesses as members, and found his own experience as both a corporate sales manager and a bookstore owner gave him the tools to understand the concerns and challenges of small businesses in the community.
Starting out, his Chamber office was in a little unused space at an urgent care on Chandler Boulevard that had been an X-ray room.
McComish laughed as he recalled that when he didn’t want to be disturbed, he would flick on the light outside that room that warned people not to enter because X-rays were being taken.
Under his watch, the Chamber eventually grew from a core of about 56 businesses to 600 members – considerably more than it has today – and his staff grew from a part-time secretary to three fulltime assistants.
And that experience helped pave the way for his next act.
“The chamber got me involved in politics,” he recalled. “I ended up going down to the Legislature on some issues. I can’t even remember what they were, but I went to some committee meetings and testified on some things and was involved with the City of Phoenix on a lot of issues as well, particularly police coverage of Ahwatukee. We weren’t getting police coverage at all.”
During his 10-year tenure as Ahwatukee Chamber president, which ended in 2006, McComish had already been expanding his public life in other ways – first as a member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee from 1997 to 1999 and chair of that panel from 2001-2004. He also chaired the Phoenix Planning Commission from 2000 to 2002.
Then, in 2002, he tested the waters of electoral politics, running unsuccessfully for the State House.
In 2002, Ahwatukee was not all in one legislative district as it is today. Part of it was with Tempe and the other part with Chandler.
He testified before the redistricting commission, arguing that Ahwatukee deserved to be entirely within the boundaries of one or the other.
“I would testify that we have our own newspaper, we have our own Chamber of Commerce, we are our own community,” he recalled.
In 2004, he ran again – this time in a district that included all of Ahwatukee.
It made a huge difference and he won what became the first of four two-year terms in the State House, the final term spent as House Majority Whip, in charge of ensuring that his fellow Republicans would be showing up whenever important votes had been scheduled.
In his first year, he said, “The biggest surprise was that I thought there would be more cooperation between the parties and there wasn’t much. The other big surprise was not just the divide between the parties, but the parties themselves continued to grow towards the extremes: the right got further right and the left got further left. And so, there was even less working together. That was kind of disappointing.”
He said he tried to address issues that affected Ahwatukee directly. For example, Y OPAS, the Ahwatukee Family YMCA’s volunteer transportation service for seniors who need rides to medical appointments, grocery shopping and other necessities, found that volunteer drivers were not allowed to park in spaces reserved for the handicapped because their cars did not have the special handicap license even though their passengers were infirmed.
He won support for a bill that basically allowed the volunteers to use the spaces so they could wait for their passengers while they tended to business.
He also pushed through a bill forbidding new, 16-year-old drivers from operating a motor vehicle after midnight unless they were working.
“It made sense and the data showed that if you’re a brand new driver and have four or five of your buddies bouncing around in the car, that’s dangerous.”
He said that as a JP, and teens who violated that law stood before him, “I never said anything but I would just kind of snicker to myself. I was tempted to say, ‘Not only am I sentencing you and fining you, but I was a guy that wrote the bill.’”
Despite his activity as a lawmaker – which also included two two-year terms in the Senate, from 2010=2014, half of which was spent as Majority Leader – McComish said his leadership positions came partly through circumstance.
“I guess I never had a big plan to be in the Legislature in the first place. That just kind of evolved. I mean, I never thought at the time, ‘Okay, I’m going to go down there and be the majority leader at this.’
“It just evolved and it seemed like the right thing to do. I was the majority whip in the house and then I was the majority leader in the house and then I was in, when I went over to the Senate, I was also the majority leader in the Senate. I was told by somebody that looked it up that I’m the only legislator that has ever served as a majority leader in both the House and the Senate.”
In 2014, he hung up his lawmaker spurs and ran for JP, a position involving the adjudication of misdemeanor cases and civil suits involving claims up to $10,000.
The court, which covers Ahwatukee and Guadalupe, kept him busy. “There were few courts busier than mine,” he said – partly because he presided over all the speeding tickets issued on I-10.
He found the work exhilarating – but also at times personally troubling.
“The evictions were the toughest part,” he recalled. “You’d get sometimes people that just had a run bad luck – illness, loss of job or something – but the landlord has the right to get paid.”
The other civil cases, he said, “I found interesting many times.”
“A lot of (the) time people represent themselves and you can’t give legal advice, but you can try to make the process fair and make sure that they get their day in court.”
All that is now behind McComish as he contemplates his new role in life as a retiree.
“I’m a sports fan and I like all kinds. I don’t have any hobbies as such. So, I do wonder sometimes, ‘Okay, what am I going to do to occupy my time?’ I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Given his track record, though, no one will be surprised that he will.