On January 9, 1980 Bert M. Fireman passed away in Tempe, Arizona, just short of his 67th birthday. Born in San Francisco, California, on March 11, 1913, Bert traveled with his family to Arizona in January 1917. Except for three years during World War II when he worked in a war industry in California, Bert stayed in Arizona. He came to know every nook and cranny of the state as he lived in Prescott, Phoenix, Superior, Glendale, and then Tempe. From his early days in public school, and after he earned his BA degree in education in 1936 from Arizona State University and pursued graduate work in history, Bert Fireman established himself as a dynamo of activity.
Following his graduation from college, Bert worked as a journalist for the United Press, Associated Press, The Pittsburgh, California Independent, and The Phoenix Southside Program. While with The Phoenix Gazette he wrote a daily column “Under the Sun” for 13 years. In the 1950s he narrated a local radio program “Arizona Crossroads” on the state’s history.
In 1959, with advice and counsel from his close friends United States Senators Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater, Bert organized the Arizona Historical Foundation and became its first and only executive Vice-President. Bert believed that such an organization could foster and promote Arizona and southwestern history. I first met Bert as a fledgling graduate student at the University of Arizona, working as an historian for the Arizona Historical Society. The society had scarcely grown in 70 years, yet Bert and others hoped to infuse new life and holdings in the old organization because he felt a “renaissance” in the state’s history about to emerge. With Bert’s counsel, Jack Carroll, Bernard Fontana and I organized the First Annual Arizona Historical Convention and laid out plans for the Journal of Arizona History: Arizoniana. All these activities confirmed his belief that Arizona’s history “was an untapped gold mine.” With Senator Goldwater’s backing and aid, the Foundation opened its doors at 3800 North Central Avenue in Phoenix and then in 1966, when the Carl Hayden Memorial Library was completed on the Arizona State University Campus, the library asked that the foundation be located on that campus.
In his unselfish fashion, Bert took the rare collections and merged those with the community library’s holdings. He became Curator of the Arizona section and lectured in the Department of History. Bert counseled and gave direction to dozens of students including many of mine who were influenced to study Arizona, the West, and the Borderlands. He always took extra time to be kind and helpful to my friends and students, a trait which endeared him to me. Bert was everyone’s counsel; at the Old Adams Hotel in Phoenix one evening I sat next to Carl Hayden during a discussion about historical landmarks and heard the venerable Senator whisper, “What do you say, Bert?” Barry Goldwater wrote that “Bert was an inspiration to me.” He had an infectious spirit like Frederick Jackson Turner, who made all those he talked to want to do something and be something. Like Herbert Eugene Bolton, Bert kept his door open long hours to anyone who wanted to talk about history or his own research project. Like Walter Prescott Webb, he took local or regional subjects and used them to help piece together and interpret the larger fabric of history.
Bert constantly gave his time and energy working on projects throughout the country. Within the state he was a member of the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission, member and former director of the Arizona Historical Society, and former chairman of the Arizona State Parks Board. Nationally he was a member of the Council of the Western History Association, founder and member of the Westerners, Phoenix Corral, member of the Advisory Council of Region 9 (Arizona, California, Nevada and Hawaii) of the U.S. National Archives and Record Service, and from 1971-1980, member of the President’s advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C. He gave leadership in such areas as archaeological legislation and land and water conservation. Bert was instrumental in securing the backing of U.S. Senators Barry Goldwater and Paul Fannin, and Congressman John J. Rhodes for creation of a major political research center on the Arizona State University campus.
Bert wrote articles for Arizona Highways, The Historian, Arizona and the West, The American West, and other journals of history. With Madalyn F. Pare, he wrote two texts on Arizona history. As editor of works published by the foundation, he contributed to a number of outstanding publications on Arizona’s past. At the time of his death, he was preparing the final chapter on a history of Arizona for Alfred A. Knopf of New York. Following in these footsteps are his two daughters: Dr. Janet Ruth Fireman Woolsey, Associate Curator of History, Los Angeles County Museum and Judy Fireman, editor for Harlan Quist in New York.
All his works reflected the experience of Bert Fireman in research, writing, editing, and design. They are works of art because Bert often commented that “the historian is a creative artist.”
Bert had many honors for his work. In 1976, the Arizona Historical Society gave him its al merito award in recognition of his contributions to Arizona history. He once told me, though, that as busy as he kept, he cherished most of all the time he and his wife Esther shared working for the Tempe Temple Emanuel and the time he spent teaching children’s classes. There is no one to take the place of Bert Fireman, but there are those to carry on his work—to continue what he started as a “Renaissance in Arizona History” in 1959. Hopefully the new political research center on the Arizona State University Campus will become a reality and carry Bert’s name so that it will always be on the lips of the thousands of students who will pass that way in years to come.
Bert, we loved you. God puts each of us here for a reason. I know He must be pleased with all that you accomplished and what you did to enrich our lives while you were here with us.
Professor of History
University of San Diego
Dedication ceremony of the first large Arizona state screened historical markers, on August 5, 1962. Left to right. Wayne O. Early, Landscape Supervision Arizona Highway Department; the late Dr. William Wasley, Archaeologist, Arizona State Museum; Dr. Emil W. Haury, Chairman, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona. Bert Fireman, Executive Vice-President, Arizona Historical Foundation; Margarite Cooley, Director, Arizona State Library and State Archives; John J. Bugg, Chairman, Arizona Highway Commission. Bernard Mergen, Director, Arizona Development Board; Dr. Ray Brandes, Historian, Arizona Historical Society; Dennis McCarthy, Director Arizona State Parks Board.