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Tikkun olam: Steven Tofel

(L-R) Brad Tofel, Trinh Tofel, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Sallie Tofel, and Steven Tofel at the grand opening of Sister Jose Women's Center on April 20.

Helping Sister Jose Women’s Center renovate a 9,000 square foot warehouse on South Park Avenue took far more of Steven Tofel’s time than he’d anticipated. But he has no regrets.

“I’m 100 percent glad I did it,” he says.

Tofel, 75, the founder and president of Tofel Construction, ended up serving as the general contractor for the project, coordinating the work of more than 50 subcontractors.

A day center for homeless women, Sister Jose provides its guests a place to rest, take a shower or have a meal, as well as outreach services from social service agencies, such as behavioral and medical health services, pre-employment training and veterans’ services. The center, which averaged just over 300 guest visits per month in 2014, had 900-plus guest visits every month in 2016, with close to 1300 in December.

And that was before the new facility Tofel helped create opened in April.

Tofel explains that he met Sister Jose’s executive director, Jean Fedigan, many years ago when they were both working at Tucson Realty. More recently, Tofel’s wife, Sallie, had been helping to provide meals at the old Sister Jose facility, “which was ridiculously small,” he says.

Reconnecting with Fedigan, Tofel agreed to evaluate the proposed new site and attended several Sister Jose board meetings to offer advice. When the board approved the warehouse purchase, “after the meeting I was standing next to Jean and she says, ‘This is so exciting, Steve, but I have to tell you I have not a clue what to do next,’” he recalls.

“Jean, I do,” he replied. 

“Steve spent the next eight months of his life with a major portion of his time working to have our building brought up to code and renewed so we could receive women,” says Fedigan, who calls him “absolutely instrumental” in the center’s success. Because of Tofel and his subcontractors, she adds, the building “is free and clear.”

“He’s my hero,” she says, and “a miracle to the women, truly.”

Tofel’s work on behalf of Sister Jose “is nothing short of phenomenal,” says Ori Parnaby, Tucson’s Jewish community concierge and social action coordinator.

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona adopted Sister Jose as its 70th anniversary mitzvah project, helping out with everything from shoe and clothing drives to sprucing up the outdoor space with raised garden beds, seating and a mural. Numerous other organizations have also provided support.

Tofel says the City of Tucson’s cooperation with permits and inspections was “spectacular.” And when the budget for the project was triple the $150,000 Fedigan had raised, he was able to get the subcontractors – including a few from Phoenix — to donate time and/or supplies. 

“I had three, out of everybody I went to, that said they just were too busy, they couldn’t do it,” he says. “I have personally never been out raising that kind of money before, and I am snowed by the total response we got.”

Tofel singles out two people for special recognition: Gardner Durkel, an independent contractor he’s known for more than 40 years, and Ron Dehn, who has done maintenance work for Sister Jose on a volunteer basis for years. “It would not have happened without those two guys, period,” he says.

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, Tofel has lived in Tucson since 1950, when his father, Joseph Tofel, moved the family out here and built the city’s first drive-through laundry.

He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1964 with a B.S. in electrical engineering and spent 10 years as a sales engineer in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Denver. Then the East Coast sales position opened up. Tofel was already traveling more than two weeks per month, missing precious time with his wife and two small children.

“I made a career decision that I was going to be a father first, and my work would come second. In the final analysis that’s worked out OK,” he says, but there were some tough times.

By then his father, “a brilliant entrepreneur,” had built and was operating the Tucson Racquet Club, so Tofel came back and managed the club for five years. He started in the construction trade by refurbishing one old house by himself, and branched out into real estate for a time. He formed Tofel Construction in 1984 with his twin brother, Richard. Specializing in multi-family units, the company has built apartments throughout California, New Mexico and Arizona, including many affordable housing projects.

“We’ve probably built 25 percent of the tax-credit projects in Arizona,” he says, including B’nai B’rith Covenant House, a U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development project for low-income elderly residents, which opened in 1995. Recently, Tofel Construction expanded into the hospitality industry and returned to its roots with several commercial projects. Tofel’s twin is now the company’s CFO and his nephew, Jim, is the development officer.

Tofel says his motto is “Always do the right thing.” If there’s a problem with a job, “we come back and fix it. Period.”

One example, he says, is the Covenant House project. “I messed up, putting the windows in. They leaked.”

Tofel went back and replaced windows over a 10-year period and says if one began leaking today, “I’d be back there fixing the doggone thing.” 

A staunch supporter of Temple Emanu-El and Tucson Hebrew Academy, which his grandson attends, Tofel says he didn’t have a strong Jewish background growing up. He went to religious school as a child but was so shy, he dropped out and never celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah.

His wife, Sallie, had a much stronger Jewish background. When their children were young they joined Emanu-El, but Tofel didn’t go to services.

About 20 years ago he began attending once every couple of months, “which for me was a very regular basis,” he says. He served on the synagogue board and donated his time for various projects, such as remodeling the early childhood education classrooms.

“When I retire, I’ll do probably more again. I’m very loyal to Temple Emanu-El and I love Rabbi Cohon, and my wife now serves on the board and she’s extremely active.”

Tofel recently joined the Sister Jose board and has served on the boards of the Tucson Metropolitan Housing Commission, Arizona Housing Commission and Arizona Housing Alliance. He is full of admiration for Fedigan, who volunteered her time at Sister Jose for years, only recently beginning to receive a small salary.

He became passionate about affordable housing – which puts the Sister Jose project, dealing with homelessness, “right in my wheelhouse,” he says – through the late Jack Wallick, founder of the Ohio-based Wallick Communities, which specializes in affordable and senior housing. A new tenant spoke at the grand opening of a project they’d worked on together, early in Tofel’s construction career.

“She said, ‘I have three children, I was living out of my car, I was on drugs and I got through rehab and I’m now living in this facility and it the nicest – I never, ever dreamed I’d live in something this nice,’” says Tofel, his voice growing husky at the memory. “And it was right then that it really cemented to me that this is something that, even though I’m a relatively conservative Republican, I really feel that it is up to our society to give these people a hand up.  … I want to put them into an environment where they can rejoin society and become productive members of society. That’s what’s driving me.”