What About Bert Fireman? A Brief History

The response to our April issue, which celebrates the first nine decades of Arizona Highways' existence, has been overwhelming. But with so much Arizona history to cram into a hundred pages, it was inevitable that many worthy contenders would have to be left out. Harry K. Nicholls, who now lives in Dallas, emailed us about one of them.

While I did enjoy the memories and contents of the issue, I did not find one mention of a very important contributor of past years. This gentlemen was a stronghold, or library, of Arizona knowledge and should not have been left out of the 90th issue. His input to Arizona through the magazine demands some recognition as a part of the history as anyone. May I remind you, sir, of Bert Fireman? Bert was a great media person in the Phoenix area before he became governor and, the best part as far as I am concerned, the best instructor of Arizona History, where it was, and what happened. He taught this New York import much of my knowledge of Arizona, wakened in me a desire to learn more, see more and understand more about the state than any teacher or professor I ever had. His articles in the magazine were like candy for me and I read any and all that I could find — including his books.

Fireman was, indeed, an influential and prolific figure in Arizona Highways' history — although, contrary to Mr. Nicholls' recollection, he was never governor. Fireman, a San Francisco native, came to Arizona with his family as a toddler in 1917. And in Arizona he remained, except for three years during World War II, when he supported the war effort in California.

In 1936, Fireman graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor's degree in education. He later pursued graduate work in history, and he put both disciplines to use over the next four decades, educating readers of Arizona Highways, as well as the Phoenix Gazette and other publications, on the history of the Grand Canyon State. He also narrated a local radio program, Arizona Crossroads, in the 1950s, and wrote or contributed to several books.

He was close friends with Barry Goldwater and Carl Hayden, who helped him organize the Arizona Historical Foundation. That organization merged its collections with ASU's Hayden Library when the latter opened in the mid-1960s, and Fireman became curator of the library's Arizona section. He also lectured on history topics at ASU.

One of Fireman's final stories for Arizona Highways, titled The Honeymoon Trail, appeared in our May 1978 issue. The story describes a pilgrimage that hundreds — maybe thousands — of Arizona's Mormon couples made to St. George, Utah, to take their marriage vows at the Mormon temple there before Mesa's temple was completed in 1928.

Here are the first few paragraphs of that story, in which Fireman's love of Arizona and nostalgia for times past are evident.

Imagine, if you can, an extremely low-cost honeymoon in the incomparably beautiful desert Southwest — totally free of "no vacancy" signs or shifty-eyed room clerks, without the hassle of credit cards or freeways, devoid of golden arches and the odor of doughnuts frying in rancid cooking oil. But with such advantages as:

• Leisurely camping near the brink of the Grand Canyon, in which depths winds sough and murmur, barely drowning out the distant rumbling of rocks in the stream.

• Camping in the virgin forest of Kaibab, while squirrels chatter in quaking aspen and deer flit across sunlit parks to the seclusion of shaded glens.

• Standing in the cooling mist of a river tumbling over falls equally as high as Niagara but unexpectedly more colorful.

• Hearing your sweetheart's voice trilling that your bacon, eggs, and biscuits are ready, as you splash your face in an icy pool at the foot of the Echo Cliffs.

Hard to imagine? Virtually impossible in this year of 1978.

But in 1878 — and for 50 years afterwards — it was commonplace in Arizona.

Fireman died in 1980 at age 67. This, as previously advertised, is a brief history of Bert Fireman. You can learn more about him by reading this memorial, which appeared in the Summer 1980 edition of the Journal of San Diego History, or by reading about the Bert Fireman Award, which is awarded annually by the Western History Association.

Photo: Bert Fireman's story The Honeymoon Trail appeared in our May 1978 issue.

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