Mike Trimble, our friend and former colleague, died in Denton, Texas of complications from cancer.
Here’s an obituary prepared by the de facto encyclopedia of Arkansas journalism, Ernest Dumas.
Mike Trimble, an Arkansas-born writer who had a celebrated career as a reporter and editor for six journals in Arkansas and Texas, died this morning at his home in Denton, Texas. He was 78.
Although of a relatively scarce breed, Trimble was Arkansas’s and perhaps the country’s greatest self-deprecating journalist. His career spanned 48 years, starting at the Texarkana Gazette and followed by jobs at the Arkansas Gazette, Arkansas Times, Pine Bluff Commercial, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Denton Record-Chronicle. His remarkable observational skills and down-to-earth writing lent unusual humanity to his articles—whether they were news, features or columns—and he always developed a large and fanatical following that he could never understand. It happened wherever he went, and the burden of high expectations and low self-confidence always was more than he could bear. He nearly always moved to something else and started over.
In his last job, as an editorial writer for the Denton Record-Chronicle in 2006, Trimble received an award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for writing the best editorials in the nation that year. Six years later, he got himself fired by the newspaper’s publisher when he refused to retract an editorial mildly criticizing the Denton Chamber of Commerce for some stand by the chamber, of which Trimble’s newspaper and its publisher were members.
Three years earlier, ironically, Trimble had received an award from the chamber, which earned him a unanimous resolution of praise from the Texas House of Representatives, proclaiming that Trimble’s “ability to inform, entertain and engage his readers . . . has gained the lasting respect and admiration of his readers and colleagues alike.”
When the Dallas Observer newspaper in 2012 reported his firing by the Record-Chronicle publisher, it quoted Trimble as saying: “It was just a difference of opinion. And he’s in a better position than I am.”
Travis Mac Trimble was born November 3, 1943, to Edgar Mac Trimble and Frances Trim Trimble, schoolteachers who had moved to Arkansas from Louisiana and had settled at Bauxite. His mother taught English—both Mike and his sister, Pat, were her students—but his father got a better-paying job as the personnel and safety director at Alcoa, which had a big aluminum-production plant at Bauxite. Mike was the center and linebacker for the Bauxite Miners football team. That experience and his teammates would become the subjects of legendary articles in the Arkansas Times magazine that Trimble aficionados clipped, saved and read aloud at parties.
One piece, which was a deep account of the success of a Bauxite English teacher in turning Bud, the leading jock on the Miners team, into a Shakespeare fanatic, recounted in detail how the teacher assigned Bud to play Macbeth and infected him with the tragic psychological dilemmas of the mad king. At the end, readers could divine that the anonymous teacher was Trimble’s mama.
Another long magazine piece was about the Bauxite Miner football team of 1960, the camaraderie and the enduring effect of the team’s loss to its chief rival, the Bryant Hornets. It began this way:
“Most of us are doing pretty well, I guess. Salty Crowson is selling insurance and raising a short ton of kids over in Conway, and Jonesy is a college professor with a highly praised book under his belt. Satchelbutt Wilmoth married his high school sweetheart; ditto Bud Richards, who, last I heard, was running a very used car lot out on the highway and serving on the Bauxite School Board. I earn three squares a day just sitting in a chair, typing.
“I don’t hear much from the members of the 1960 Bauxite Miner football team—except for Salty, who handles my insurance, and always calls around my birthday to remind me that I am one year closer to dying. But every year around this time I start thinking about them—Salty and Satchel and Bud and Rolleigh and Harold Selby and Dan Reed and the rest—and I wonder if they are still as embarrassed as I am at getting beat by Bryant.”
Trimble deprecated his own talents and role on the team. His article reported that on a critical play that cost the Miners the game he tried to tackle a Bryant running back along the sideline and instead wound up tackling Bauxite’s prettiest cheerleader, the girlfriend of his star—and infuriated—teammate. (The Times’ reprinted the article in 1985.)
After two years at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Trimble went to work as a reporter for the Texarkana Gazette, where his friend Jimmy Jones from nearby Hope worked. Jones went to work for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. At a party at Jones’s apartment in Little Rock, another Gazette reporter met Trimble, liked him and said he should come to work for the Little Rock paper. Trimble said he didn’t have the ability. The Gazette reporter sent a memo to the managing editor, Arla Nelson, saying that he feared that Gene Foreman—a former Gazette writer and editor who had become the managing editor at the Pine Bluff Commercial and, to Nelson’s chagrin had hired away a Gazette copy editor—was going to hire a brilliant Texarkana reporter, Trimble. Nelson called Trimble and hired him. Trimble always said he felt woefully inadequate.
His news stories and features usually picked up observations that other reporters would miss. Writing about a fancy event at the Country Club of Little Rock honoring an early civic and civil rights leader, Trimble’s article noted that the steaks were “as big as saddle blankets” and that the honoree was the only Black person in the big crowd who didn’t wear the white jacket of servants. The publisher of his paper, who helped arrange the event, was irked by Trimble’s observation but didn’t fire him.
Finally, the editor assigned him to write one of the two famous daily columns in the Gazette—“Our Town” and “The Arkansas Traveler”—that had been or would be written by such legends as the novelist Charles Portis, Ernie Deane, Charles Allbright, Bob Lancaster and Richard Allin. Trimble felt inadequate but soon had a rabid following, especially in the newspaper corps. One especially memorable column, mournful but also funny, was about Trimble’s burial of Red, his dog and faithful friend. (Facebook users can find a facsimile of this column in a reader comment on the Arkansas Times’ Facebook post of the obituary.)
The expectation that every column had to achieve some majesty was more than Trimble could bear. He went back to reporting and soon quit.
One of his last articles for the Gazette was a long Sunday feature about a famous catfish restaurant on the White River at DeValls Bluff run by Olden Murry, a Black man who had once worked on riverboats on the Mississippi River. Trimble proclaimed it the best restaurant in Arkansas (the best food he had proclaimed to be the barbecue sauce at Fisher’s, a joint that allowed white customers like Trimble in a shabby back room). The article recounted a typical day in the life of the aging Murry, scurrying around preparing for the big crowds that crammed the ramshackle cafe made partly of old railroad cars. The Monday after the article appeared, Trimble got a call from his old deskmate at the Gazette, Bill Shadle, who had gone to work for the Social Security disability office. He congratulated Trimble on a fascinating article about Murry’s hard work but then said the only trouble was that Murry had been drawing 100 percent total and permanent disability benefits for 20 years. The agency went after Murry for recovery of the benefits. Murry hired one of his regular customers, Bobby Fussell, a former U.S. prosecutor and later the Arkansas bankruptcy judge, to defend him.
Fussell eventually told the government that Murry couldn’t repay so it needed to take ownership of the restaurant. The government relented and dropped the case. Fussell rented a bus and invited Trimble and his friends, who included the then-presiding U.S. attorney, to ride to DeValls Bluff for a free catfish dinner. Late in the feast, Murry brought out a platter of fried crappie, which someone noted was illegal to harvest commercially. It was agreed, for the sake of the horrified prosecutor, that probably no crime had occurred because a friend of Murry had caught the crappie gratis and the meal was free.
Trimble went to work for the Arkansas Times, a monthly magazine, where he wrote such pieces as his Bauxite memories, but even there the expectations of grandeur every month were more than he could stand. Shortly before he departed, he wrote about the big new national headquarters building of Dillard’s department stores on Cantrell Road, in which he said the structure looked like a mausoleum with a clock. Dillard’s was, until then, an advertiser in the Times. Dillard’s didn’t return. Trimble left the magazine.
Trimble then applied for a vacancy at the Pine Bluff Commercial covering several outlying towns. He listed as a reference the Gazette writer who had gotten him his job at that paper. The Pine Bluff executive editor, Jane Ann Ramos, the former editor of the Fort Smith Times-Record, telephoned the Gazette man, who told her about Trimble’s brilliance. Yes, she said, she had read some of his clippings but why in the world was he applying for the Commercial’s lowest reporting job? Because he needs a job, the Gazette man told her. “Hire him. You’ll love him.”
The next year, the Gazette man went to the wedding reception of Jane Ramos and Trimble at Pine Bluff. She approached the Gazette man and said, “You were right!” After the wedding, she had to fire him because the Commercial’s corporate owners had a nepotism policy. He went to work for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as a state-desk reporter and commuted to Little Rock.
Soon, Jane Trimble was named publisher of the daily Weatherford Democrat west of Fort Worth, and she and her husband moved to Weatherford. Mike went to work as a copy editor and reporter for the Denton newspaper northeast of Weatherford and three years later Jane joined him there, first as a city hall reporter and then as managing editor. She left the Denton paper to join the editorial staff of the Star-Telegram in nearby Fort Worth.
Jane Trimble died in 2014, two years after her husband lost his editorial job at Denton, where they lived. The highlight of his last years was his love for his daughter and grandchildren.
Trimble is survived by his sister, Pat Patterson, and her husband,
Carrick, of Little Rock; his daughter, Erin Trimble Gray of Little Rock; his grandchildren Camryn and Turner; Pat and Carrick Patterson’s daughter, Julia Taylor of Little Rock, and her husband Mallory and their daughter, Mary Ruth; his nephew, John Patterson of Atlanta and his daughter, Josephine,
and Meranda Barks of Denton, his friend and helper.
No service is planned.
A PS from Max: There are so many Trimble stories. Below is one I happened to stumble on in preparing for this obituary. Mike could cover anything, from politics to the latest tornado, and no one did it as he did. It would take a few years (almost 20) but Mike Beebe would indeed rise to the governor’s chair once held by Bill Clinton. It’s from the 40th anniversary “Best of” collection.