A cowboy and a scholar - East Valley Tribune: News

A cowboy and a scholar

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Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2004 6:15 am | Updated: 4:50 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

It’s almost the stuff of cowboy tales that Marshall Trimble bought his new home in a north Scottsdale subdivision where streets take names from Western icons, such as bronco and wrangler.

Among the nuevo Territorial-style homes in his upscale neighborhood, the state’s official historian didn’t feel quite at home until he festooned an old paloverde tree with a barn-wood slat. Hung on a wire and made to look like a sign, it’s branded with "Querencia."

Despite its traditional Spanish meaning — the place where a bull goes to die in the ring — the always optimistic Trimble prefers the definition Mexican cowboys attach to the word — a place where horses gather on the range.

Perhaps that double meaning best defines Trimble.

Juxtaposed against a snappy wit and an easy grin, the cowboy balladeer is mindful of getting older and downright fearful of slowing down.

His thin physique, sharp blue eyes and trademark black cowboy hat belie the image of a man who could qualify for a senior discount at the very shows he headlines. Even at 65, Trimble has a young man’s energy.

His stage performances are an Old West version of a variety show. Highlighted by 12-string guitar playing, Trimble serves audiences equal parts storytelling and song. He adds a dash of selfdeprecating humor and sprinkles in Arizona history for good measure.

"I feel like I’m doing something important. If I didn’t, I guess I’d just, you know, quit," Trimble said. "I have a real fear that if I don’t take care of myself then I’m not going to be able to have the energy to do these things I do.

"I think I’d just wither up on the vine and just die. It sounds maudlin, maybe, but I really believe that if I don’t feel I’m useful, I’d have no place to go. And I’m having too much fun to stop."

Others don’t want him to stop, either. A number of groups this year have bestowed honors upon him, from Daughters of the American Revolution to the Scottsdale Hall of Fame. His television show "Arizona Backroads" was nominated for a regional Emmy, and he was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame.


Born in 1939 in a Mesa hospital, Trimble lived with his family on a small livestock ranch south of Tempe. The family eventually moved to Ash Fork to follow his father’s dream of railroading.

Trimble credits his upbringing in the northern Arizona town with helping to forge an appreciation for Arizona history and the state’s rural lifestyle that lies just beyond the big cities.

One of his most poignant memories came years ago when he was invited to speak at a high school graduation in Young, a tiny town east of Payson. The school flew him to town on a small airplane.

"The plane had to fly low and kind of buzz the cattle so we could make a landing on the grass runway," he said. "I thought to myself, ‘This is the Arizona I remember, and the Arizona I love.’ "

In the 1980s, Trimble worked as a featured guest on trail rides throughout Arizona.

During the day he’d answer tourists’ questions, and at night he’d play his guitar and sing old cowboy songs around the campfire.

It didn’t pay much, but it allowed him to see most of the scenic parts of Arizona on the back of a horse.

"There’s nothing like it. I’ve done it in a hot-air balloon, an airplane, hiked it," he said. "The horse kind of picks his way through the stuff and you just sit back and think, ‘This is just how it felt in 1875.’ "

Trimble didn’t grow up with a guitar.

He was a jock, having played baseball for a semipro team called the Glendale Greys, and later for Phoenix College. He graduated from Arizona State University with a physical education degree.

He bought his first guitar for $5 in 1958 after being inspired by a Marine buddy who could do a perfect Elvis impersonation, an act he said would impress girls. Trimble, who claims he was terminally shy — though you’d never know that today — taught himself to play while listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash records.

"We’d go up to L.A., to the beaches, and get him to do the Elvis imitations and it would attract the California girls," he said. "I took a lesson from that and thought, ‘If I learned to play the guitar maybe I could attract some of these gals, too.’ "

The guitar would soon become an integral part of Trimble’s life. Not only did the instrument help him pay the rent, it became the foundation for his stage performances and public appearances.

In 1970, while teaching at Coronado High School, Trimble had an opportunity to buy a home on an acre lot in Paradise Valley for $30,000 (he later sold it for nearly $1 million).

But the price was nearly out of reach for a young teacher, so Trimble turned to the guitar to make extra cash. He began performing in Scottsdale bars now long closed, such as the Cross Keys and the Red Dog.

A few years later, Trimble published his first book, "Arizona: A Panoramic History of a Frontier State." He soon found himself at speaking engagements and book signings. It was the first of 19 books he’s written, ranging from folklore to gunfighters to Southwest history.

Thinking he’d bore audiences with simple readings, Trimble again reached for the guitar to liven up his appearances. The book appearances spawned corporate events and conventions.

"Pretty soon, they were starting to pay a whole lot better than the bars. And the conventions, I found out, paid a whole lot more than singing around the corral.

"To this day, that has been really my bread and butter," he said. "I look at that old 12-string guitar and I think, ‘Doggone it, this thing has taken me a long, long ways. I love that thing like I would a brother.’ "


The Daughters of the American Revolution honored Trimble with its Medal of Honor for leadership and patriotism. He also was inducted into Scottsdale’s Hall of Fame this year. On Nov. 4, he was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame.

To this day he credits his Marine Corps senior drill instructor as being one of the most influential people in his life.

Though he claims the drill instructor called him "the worst Marine recruit he had ever seen," Trimble said he made the young recruit believe he could do anything he set out to do.

"I would have run through a brick wall for him," he said.

The military has significance in Trimble’s family life, too.

His son, Roger, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and in September was deployed with his U.S. Army unit to Iraq, where he was recently promoted to the rank of captain. Even amid his cowboy hardness,

Trimble can’t fully conceal his emotions when he speaks of his son.

"There is a toughness you pick up. But my old students, and especially my son, are my soft spot — and old girlfriends," Trimble says. "My son is really on my mind all of the time. I’m worried, but there are a lot of parents who are going through the same thing."

Trimble recalls an impromptu trip they took to Australia. Once, after a few drinks in an Irish-themed pub, the pair found themselves in a tattoo parlor.

His son selected "duty, honor and country" in Japanese, while Trimble, after some consternation, got the Marine bulldog tattooed on his arm.

"I told him to put it up high because I had just not planned to get a tattoo," he said. "I woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my God! What have you done to yourself now?’ "

Though humor is never far from the surface, Trimble had a rough year in 1999 that he says made him more appreciative of his health and career: His mother and the last of three brothers died, he got divorced and his son left home to attend West Point.

About the only thing that lifted his spirits was a homeless, deaf Dalmatian named Patches.

At the time, Trimble grudgingly agreed to give the dog a look after a former student could no longer care for her. Patches was on the way to the pound when Trimble showed up.

"Peeking out behind her legs was this dog flirting with me. This dog chose me," he said. "All of this hit me at one time and this dog came along and it was like she said, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ And I said, ‘I’ll take care of you, too.’

"We moved into a patio home together. That was all we really had, was each other."

Patches died last year. Trimble keeps her ashes in an urn inscribed with the words, "My best friend."


It’s difficult to put a label on the guitar-toting historian, but Trimble wouldn’t have it any other way.

He has been the director of Southwest Studies at Scottsdale Community College since 1972. He can be heard on several radio stations that carry his show "Trimble’s Tales " and "Marshall’s Arizona." He hosts a local television show called "Arizona Backroads" on KAET-TV (Channel 8)

Like any prolific performer, Trimble can recount many memorable experiences on stage. Such as the time he found himself standing knee-deep in water after taking a wrong turn backstage in a church.

He thought he was heading for the stage, but soon realized he had walked into the baptismal. He performed soaking wet.

"They still kid me about that today; that not only did I do the show but I got baptized that night," he said.

And though he’s famous for his shows, the classroom still gives him a charge. He teaches a class one night a week in a full lecture hall at SCC.

His first class had 12 students. His second had 60. Since then, he’s had 120 students sign up for his class each semester.

A self-described poor student, Trimble identifies with students who struggle with academics.

"Teaching still lights me up. Paris Hilton lights me up, too," he said with a wry smile. "If something lights you up then you ought to not quit on it."

He said he "bluffed his way through" the first semester, designing the curriculum and adapting to a college lecture hall.

For the final exam, Trimble took the class to Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse. After the test, the students decided they each had to buy him a drink.

"Twelve drinks later, somebody had to take me home," he said. "That was the last time we had our final at Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse because the next semester I had 60 students. I thought, ‘I can’t do 60 scotch and waters.’ "


When he’s not performing or making public appearances, Trimble can mostly be found in his office — a virtual library of Arizona history.

As the state’s official historian — in 1996 a group of Arizona teachers lobbied then-Gov. Fife Symington to appoint him — Trimble answers dozens of e-mails each day.

The questions come from all over the world from people interested in Arizona’s history. He also answers questions about the Old West in his column, "Ask the Marshall," in True West magazine.

Questions range from the bizarre to the common inquiry about gun-toting outlaws. Recent ones include: "Did Indians use their own urine for medicinal purposes?" (yes); and "How did the Arizona pioneers keep their beer cold?" (Phoenix had an ice plant in 1879.)

Though he’s written 19 books, Trimble said the biggest misconception he has to overcome is that people don’t think he’s serious about history.

His tendency to carry a guitar onstage and slide in the occasional tall tale might add to that misconception, he admits.

"But I always thought humor would get you a lot further than being too pedantic."

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