Longtime Tempe homebuilder Elmer Bradley became mayor of the city at the perfect time. In 1968, Tempe was entering an era of growth and undergoing landmark changes — ideal for Bradley’s construction prowess.
In the two years he was mayor, Bradley helped lay the foundation for Tempe’s awakening from a sleepy college town to a city filled with thousands of people.
Bradley died Wednesday night of a massive heart attack at a Mesa hospital. He was 76.
In the 1960s, Bradley was determined that Tempe had to address growth with bold construction, even though some didn’t want the city to expand, recalled former Mayor Rudy Campbell, who defeated Bradley in their first tries for the mayorship in 1966.
His father had been a contractor, and Bradley “was raised to build everything in town,” Campbell said. “He was very aggressive — at times, too aggressive — but it was his style.”
That may have led to his defeat in 1970 by 346 votes to Dale Shumway. “He was a very strong-willed person, and if you carry that too far, it will backfire on you,” Campbell said.
Even so, Bradley is regarded by many as a key figure in Tempe’s expansion.
“He did much to further the development of this city and was mayor when the real rush of development began,” Shumway said.
After starting his own construction business in 1957, Bradley concentrated on building custom homes. His office estimates he built 1,500 homes and more than 1,100 apartments and condominiums in Tempe alone. He also built in Mesa.
“He developed a good reputation as a builder, and he was very strong in his religion, ” said Jerry Vaughn, sales manager and general manager for 11 years.
Bradley and Guy Davidson were 9 and attended the Assembly of God church in Phoenix when they cemented a lifelong friendship. In 1966, the Davidsons, Bradleys and three families founded Grace Community Church — Tempe’s first megachurch with more than 3,000 members.
Davidson led it for 22 years. Bradley went on to help found Bethany Community Church in 1977, then teamed with Davidson in 1997 to found and build Arizona Community Church in south Tempe.
“I told Guy when he moved back to town, I said, ‘Guy, read my lips. No new churches,’” Bradley said in a Tribune interview in 1998.
But Davidson found seven acres at Rural and Knox roads and built another church.
“He did probably more in a two-year time as mayor than anyone else,” said Richard Neuheisel, who served on Bradley’s City Council and was later vice mayor. The “inverted pyramid” City Hall and a new library were built.
A new housing code led to redevelopment of downtown Tempe, while adoption of a strict sign ordinance with a design review process for new development ended years of resistance.
Born Aug. 4, 1930, Bradley went to North High School in Phoenix. Lanky and standing 6-foot-5, he played college basketball at Seattle Pacific University in Washington. His company quit building homes in the late 1990s, but Bradley remained involved in construction partnerships and projects, said his office manager of 40 years, Peggy Rollins.
Bradley is survived by his wife of 53 years, Ellen; three children, Karen Smith and Gary Bradley, both of Tempe, and Kathy Schell of Scottsdale, and eight grandchildren. Services are pending at Carr-Tenney Mortuary in Tempe.