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VIDEO: Farming the future of Peoria

Bissinger named Hometown Hero in the Lifetime Achievement category


The centerpiece of the Peoria city logo is farmland in lines flanked by a Saguaro Cactus and the sun, with rays in lines extending the farmland into the sky.

The art is meant to represent the area’s humble agricultural community the city was founded on in 1886.

And it was certainly representative of the farmland that Don Bissinger, 96, and his family helped establish long before Peoria became incorporated in 1954.

In a city rooted in legacy families who paved the way to its current success, the Bissinger family contributed decades of farming to Peoria, harvesting cotton as well as alfalfa, and raising chickens and cows.

Bissinger took up that mantle in the city’s early growth years, fought for his homeland in World War II and returned — with his farm in the shadow of Peoria High School — to volunteer and share his knowledge of agriculture with students and future farmers of America.

Peoria City Councilmember Vicki Hunt said Bissinger has been an unsung hero over the years and made a significant contribution to the soul of Peoria, as well as to agriculture students at Peoria High School.

“Don has set an example of hard work and determination,” said Hunt, who has known Bissinger for more than 25 years. “He is a man who has served his country, but returned home to the hometown he loves.”

For his work in laying the city’s foundation, fueling the local economy over many decades and preparing today’s youth for the agricultural industry, Bissinger has been named the Peoria Independent Hometown Hero in the Lifetime Achievement category.

The Hometown Heroes Awards are a celebration of individuals who live or teach in the city, and Peoria businesses for their local achievements and distinguished contributions to the community.

Bissinger will be honored at an awards luncheon, Feb. 21.

In partnership with the city of Peoria, he has also been interviewed by the city and aired on Channel 11.

Former teachers say Bissinger’s contributions to the Peoria High School agricultural education program and the Future Farmers of America student organization have been invaluable.

“Don was a consistent and faithful supporter of the Peoria agricultural education program and the FFA student organization,” said former agriculture teacher John Mulcahy,” He and his wife could always be relied upon to sponsor various awards. They are outstanding supporters of FFA in particular, and Peoria High School in general.”

Every year FFA had a community-wide barbecue during which students and staff helped roast a pig in the ground for hours and then served it to the community that night.

Former agriculture teacher Mike Gillespie said Bissinger was an important part of that process.

Gillespie said it was a huge task to get ready and Bissinger would come early in the morning with equipment, dig the pit, then stay around all day to help out, keeping the fire going.

“I still had to teach our classes, so it was good to have Don to stay with the pit. ... The kids loved to hear Don’s stories and showed him a lot of respect. Don was just a guy you could count on to tell a good story and help the kids with whatever projects they had going. He meant a lot to the agriculture department,” Gillespie said. “During my tenure as agriculture teacher at Peoria High School, Don was one of the men that we could always depend on to help out when needed. He loved being around the kids and loved giving back.”

Growing up in Old Town Peoria

The line of Bissingers in Peoria began with Don’s grandfather, who arrived from California in 1917 with his trailer and horses after buying 90 acres near what is now 77th and Peoria avenues. The rest of the family followed.

Bissinger was born at Good Samaritan Hospital, now Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, on Feb. 26, 1926.

He grew up on his father’s property in Peoria where he learned and loved to farm. He attended Peoria Grammar School, which is located on 83rd Avenue and Jefferson Street in Old Town and went on to graduate from Peoria High School when the only building was Old Main, at a time when only about 150-160 students were enrolled.

He graduated from the school in 1943, and received a scholarship to ASU for basketball.

“My four years at Peoria High School were very enjoyable and fun-filled ones,” Bissinger said. “With the help of caring parents, good high school administrators, teachers, coaches and fellow students, I was encouraged to learn, get involved in student government, athletics and other school activities.”

Bobby Gonzalo, former Peoria High School wrestling coach and class of 1968, remembers how he used to look down from the third floor of Old Main out onto Bissinger’s farm, still located right next to the school.

“Don has always been very well known in the Peoria community, kind of like an icon among farmers,” Gonzalo said. “He was also an all-state baseball player in high school.”

From small town to big city

Everybody knew everybody back in small town Peoria, so it wasn’t very long into Bissinger’s life when he met his future wife, Betty Moore.

One day their fathers were driving on Yarnell Hill and stopped to visit with their children in tow. Bissinger was 8 and Betty was 7. They later became high school sweethearts, marrying in 1950, and it was the beginning of a friendship that would span more than 70 years.

In 1951 they moved into their current home and farm at 83rd Avenue and Varney Road.

“Betty could drive any tractor on the farm,” Bissinger said. “She has been a good wife for 73 years.”

In the 1940s, World War II was a call to serve for Bissinger, so he planned to enlist when he turned 18.

“At that time, anyone 18 was getting drafted,” he said. “I wanted to go into the Navy, but before I could enlist, they drafted me into the Army in 1944.”

He served in the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, only 1/2 mile from Hacksaw Ridge, then in Cebu, Philippines, after it had been secured.

When America won the war, he was welcomed back to the states.

“All of the locals were happy to see us, and we never had any issues,” he said.

Prior to Bissinger entering the war, long-time Peoria resident Betty Osborne met him in 1942, and has been a friend of the family ever since.

She said he is quite a respectable and gentle man and is friends with everybody.

Osborne said he has always been there to help over the years, using his farming skills to make the community a better place, citing his beautification of the former Peoria Arizona Historical Society and his contributions to young farmers.

And, he knows quite a bit about Peoria, she added, much like a local historian.

“In conversation, we go from one subject to the next. He’s a wonderful person to sit and talk with,” Osborne said. “Don is one heck of a nice person.”

Bissinger has seen the area grow from around 1,000 people in the 1940s to a thriving city of nearly 200,000 people today. Bissinger reflected on the plethora of changes that have occurred in the city of Peoria over his lifetime.

“You know, when you grow up in a little town, you like a little town,” he said. “I think they’ve done good and compared to other cities, we’re pretty lucky.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at phaldiman@iniusa.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.
Editor’s note: Peoria City Councilmember Vicki Hunt contributed to this report.