Marty Gibson makes no secret about his fascination with the backstory of communities he’s lived in.
“Wherever I’ve lived, I have always taken an interest in the local history,” he explained. “And if there was a library with a little history section or the motherlode of an actual historical society, I would go visit at night. I always found that interesting.”
So, what did the Long Island native do when he moved 32 years ago to Arizona and landed in a community with no repository of its history?
He became one himself.
An insurance claims executive by profession and a marketing major by education who was “not particularly” interested in history, Gibson is the de facto historian of the world’s biggest cul de sac.
He locked in that title last week with the official publication of his second book in 12 years on the history of Ahwatukee.
“Historic Tales from Ahwatukee Foothills” is published by History Press – a subsidiary of Arcadia Press, which published Gibson’s “Phoenix’s Ahwatukee-Foothills” as part of its “Images in America” series of history-in-pictures books.
Gibson calls “Tales” a “counterpoint” to his first book.
“This one is stories with 80 pictures and the other one was 180 photos and really no stories,” he said.
With an introduction by A. Wayne Smith – the landscape architect who planned Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course and much of Ahwatukee’s basic footprint – Gibson’s slender book tells 27 stories that are crammed with largely unknown facts about the community’s origins.
Some stories offer a fascinating glimpse into the origin of well-known landmarks – such as 48th Street. Others give the backstory on activities and things that are uniquely Ahwatukee – such as the Easter Parade and even this newspaper. Still other stories bring to life the pioneers of Ahwatukee, some memorialized by thoroughfares like Elliot and Ray roads and others barely known.
Now, as a result of Gibson’s painstaking work – largely done through interviews over more than a decade – those pioneers will never be forgotten.
Gibson’s passion for refining his public speaking inadvertently put him on the long and winding road of pulling together Ahwatukee’s history.
He had joined a Toastmasters Club, of which he had been president for four separate terms, and did a lot of public speaking back in the 1990s.
It started with AFN
He looked for an original topic and stumbled on it in a copy of the Ahwatukee Foothills News that contained an abbreviated history of Ahwatukee written by long-time AFN publisher/editor and founder Clay Schad.
“So, I plagiarized that, photocopied some stuff in there and turned it into a little speech,” Gibson recalled. “I kept giving it to more and more groups and kind of just made it up as I went along. Soon people were telling me, ‘You need to write a book.’
“I think people around here were so starved for the history of this community, myself included,” he explained. “That five-minute speech, even if it was rough around the edges, was enough to get people to say, ‘That’s interesting.’ ... I’d never lived in a place where there was no history or repository of historical documents. It’s like, well, where’s the wisdom museum? There wasn’t any, obviously, so I just decided one day to just give it a shot.”
That “shot” became an extended trip down memory lane with one early Ahwatukee pioneer after another, a years-long series of conversations with people whom he listened to, whose recollections he wrote down in notebooks, and who often became his good friends along the way.
His first interview was with Rick Savagian, founder and head instructor of Mountainside Martial Arts, in 2004 as the internationally renowned instructor was marking his 40th year in Ahwatukee.
“It just kind of built from there,” Gibson said. “One person would give me two names and two of those people would give me a total of four names and it just kind of mushroomed to the point where I have stuff put away on my credenza that I will just never get to.”
“It just kind of took on a life of its own and the stories got more interesting and became a matter of ‘I want to talk to this guy and then this guy,’ that kind of thing, and I guess if I’m good at anything, it’s keeping good notes and then transcribing them.”
“Historic Tales from Ahwatukee Foothills,” however, is far more than a compilation of transcribed notes.
A relentless pursuit
Each chapter offers a fascinating read on slices of Ahwatukee’s past that few residents – even many long-time ones – even know about.
And each of the 27 stories reflect a deep affection not only for the community whose history he mined, but also for the people who made it.
“I met the old timers and, unfortunately, quite a few of them whom I became good friends with are no longer with us,” Gibson said. “I mean they were old when I met them, maybe the mid-2000s.”
By the time he published his first book, Gibson already had encountered a problem as a result of his relentless pursuit of scraps of Ahwatukee’s past.
“I had all that research and the captions didn’t do justice to some of them, the breadth and depth of information that I had,” he explained.
So, a former AFN editor suggested he write a history column for the newspaper and Gibson found “that gave me an outlet for some of the research I had done.”
Yet, he soon realized, “That still wasn’t enough, but at least I could go beyond the first book in terms of telling some of the stories.”
It also “forced me to keep doing more research. I didn’t know everything by any stretch of the imagination made it to the paper.”
But Gibson said those columns helped give him the idea for the second book’s format as well as some of its content.
“I guess in the back of my mind, I always suspected the second book would be a natural byproduct of all this research – the leftover research plus the new stuff. So again, it was an evolution. I mean I just kept doing the research. I had stuff that wouldn’t make it into the paper because it was too voluminous and all that kind of hit critical mass.”
Nailing down the facts
Even so, his painstaking attention to detail and his rigidly disciplined search for thoroughness and accuracy at times forced him to talk to several people just to nail down a fact.
“It wasn’t just people dying. It was fuzzy details and I needed to get this nailed down 100 percent. Circling back, one of my great sources was Pete Meyer, the Realtor, he’s actually in the book. There’s a picture of him from 1973. He just knows a lot. He’s forgotten more than anybody, including me, remember. He’s got amazing recall.”
Along with that level of research, life got in the way, and before Gibson knew it, more than a decade had passed since his first book came out.
But in late 2017, he got the motivation he needed to sit down and finally write its sequel: He signed a contract with a deadline of December 2018.
Though he stressed that “I don’t have any ego in this” labor of love, the books and the research he poured into them have left as big a mark on him as the people he wrote about left on Ahwatukee.
First, there’s the local fame of sorts – which he says, “I’m not flattered, I’m amused” by.
“I went to an open house the other day, and I said, you know, ‘hi, I’m Marty.’ That’s all I said, and they said, ‘You wrote the history book.’”
He’s not about to let that go to his head.
“The (first) book is in its third printing and people in Glendale aren’t buying it, so, you know, it has a certain audience down here.”
“I do get that a lot,” he said of his local fame, “which I guess is a testament to the fact that people might be starved for local history. People are interested in the place where they live.”
Then there’s the fact that it’s hard to drive around Ahwatukee without some of the stories and the people who made them popping into his head.
He admits that Ahwatukee has changed – not only from the time that many of his sources told him about but even in the time he’s lived here.
Yet, on the whole, he said, “All the good stuff has stayed the same. I’m not saying every change has been for the good, but it’s still on balance a great place to live. It resonates with me.”
Then there are the indelible impressions and relationships that the subjects of his work have left – and the melancholy that descends when one of them passes away.
“I mean you just meet these older guys and their wives, but they’re the ones who were working the farms and stuff. They’re the ones who were talking to me and they’re just such wonderful people and just such sweet, old-fashioned people. We don’t live our lives that way today. So, when one of them dies, it really, it’s a loss at many, many levels.
“My life is so much the poorer for not being able to go down and visit them,” Gibson said. “It’s like your favorite grandfather passing away two and three and four times.”