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Arizona’s official historian shares passion through music, humor

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Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 5:30 pm

PHOENIX – Stepping off stage after a 9/11 memorial at the State Capitol, Arizona’s official historian is just setting down his guitar when two fifth–graders approach him with questions about their history projects.

Their mothers standing nearby for encouragement, the girls listen intently as Marshall Trimble tips back his cowboy hat and leans in to spin tales about their topics, the Grand Canyon and Montezuma Castle.

Afterward, the girls talked excitedly about what they learned.

“He said the Grand Canyon is a mile deep,” said 10–year–old Alissa Forconi of Cave Creek.

Just as he engaged Forconi and her classmate with colorful stories, Trimble has been educating in and out of the classroom since 1969 on everything from Geronimo’s surrender to how the city of Tombstone got its name. Appointed state historian by Gov. Fife Symington in 1997, he travels the state, talking, joking and singing about Arizona history with his smooth Western voice and infectious grin.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett said Trimble’s cowboy ways and love of sharing history keep Arizonans connected, especially since the state’s rapid growth means many people who live here aren’t natives.

“He does what he does as the state historian in a very low–key, down–to–earth, average–Arizonan way,” Bennett said. “I think that helps people warm up to him.”

To Trimble, his job as an Arizona historian is to share his passion for history in ways that captivate people. He said he uses music, jokes and quirky stories to keep Arizonans interested in what makes their state unique.

Formerly a professor and now director of Southwest studies at Scottsdale Community College, Trimble said he enticed his students with intriguing stories of Arizona residents, like Gen. George Crook, an unorthodox leader who earned the trust of Native American tribes during the Indian wars.

“It’s the old spoonful–of–sugar method,” he said. “I learned it as a high school teacher teaching history when kids were not that excited about history.”

Trimble’s position is in the spotlight as the state’s centennial rolls around. He is featured in ongoing events leading up the official centennial celebration on Feb. 14, 2012.

As a lifelong Arizonan, Trimble has seen the state’s evolution firsthand. He said he watched his hometown of Ash Fork, a point along Route 66, slowly lose steam as interstate highways bypassed towns along the historic road. Ash Fork is the subject of one of his 20–plus books, and he said it remains one of his favorites parts of state history to tell.

He also writes a blog, “Ask the Marshall,” for True West magazine, which publishes a collection of articles on all things Western. Trimble answers readers’ questions, including one self-proclaimed “follicly challenged” man’s inquiry into whether or not there were any bald heroes in the Old West.

“I love it,” he said, chuckling at the zany questions he’s faced over the years.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Historical Society presented him with an Al Merito Award for his efforts to preserve Arizona’s past. Michael Wade, the group’s president, said that in addition to being extremely knowledgeable Trimble exemplifies the spirit of the state.

“Too often when people think of history they think of a dry subject, a dusty topic, and Marshall is able to convey the life and the excitement of Arizona history,” Wade said.

Honors aside, Trimble said it’s still just about the history for him. He said he always wants people to feel comfortable just chatting with him.

“I would like for them most of all to think that I’m approachable, and I’m passionate about the state, and that I was a good teacher,” he said. “I taught them things about Arizona that they usually didn’t find in textbooks.”

Trimble said that as he has traveled the state and worked to educate others he has gained more knowledge of Arizona than he ever could in an academic setting.

“I like to think of myself as somebody that’s been out on the lines for a long time, and I’d rather have that than a Ph.D.,” Trimble said.

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