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Historian’s heartfelt homage to Albuquerque

Roger Zimmerman, right, with some of his Navajo childhood friends.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dirt roads, horse-drawn carts and hills of sand were familiar sites for Albuquerque historian Roger Zimmerman while growing up on an isolated piece of property not far from the Navajo Nation in McKinley County.

The native New Mexican started his career as a professor, then an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, and upon retirement transformed his love of history into a robust hobby that has culminated in his new book, “A History Lover’s Guide to Albuquerque.”

Publisher Arcadia has a series of historical guidebooks for cities across the country.

Zimmerman, who was recently the president of the Albuquerque Historical Society, said he was contacted by the publisher and asked if he would consider writing the book.

“I was given a 45,000-word limit,” he said. “I decided to write it in periods.”

Roger Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s book is a brief run through the city’s history, starting with the Native Americans who called this area home and ending with they city’s cultural sites and offerings. Each topic mentioned in the book comes with an accompanying address so anyone reading about these historical places or events can visit them.

For example, one topic in the book is the impact of the Civil War in the Albuquerque area. He directs visitors to Old Town to see on display there the cannons that were used here during the war. Other places mentioned in the book include places related to the railroad, historical buildings at the University of New Mexico, Menaul School, and the old Albuquerque High School, theaters, libraries, river crossing bridges, Kirtland Air Force Base, and the state fairgrounds.

Zimmerman said his goal was not to provide a comprehensive history of each place he features but instead an introduction to those places.

“I didn’t want it to be used as a research guide,” he said. “There are other people who are much better at that. It’s a quick reference guide.”

Zimmerman, 82, was born at Rehoboth Mission, just east of Gallup. His parents, who had grown up in a farming community in southern Michigan, came to New Mexico in 1929 for work. His parents, E.W. “Zim” and Pauline, eventually purchased the Mariano Lake Trading Post, 11 miles west of N.M. 371 in McKinley County. It’s where Zimmerman spent his early childhood. The family had no neighbors for miles, and most of Zimmerman’s friends were Navajo children, because there were few other Anglo children in the area.

Jay Christensen is a childhood friend of Zimmerman’s and was his closest non-Navajo neighbor growing up. Christensen’s father also owned a trading post and purchased the Mariano Lake store from Zimmerman’s father. Christensen would go on to open Dan’s Boots and Saddles in the North Valley. It’s still run by the family, and he said they still get a lot of Navajo customers who knew his father and remain loyal.

“The Navajo kids were our friends,” Christensen said. “It was a country type of life. When the horse and wagon would come down the road, we would hang on the back and let them drag us. They did not like that too much, because it made the horses work harder.”

Zimmerman went to high school at New Mexico Military Institute and went on to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in civil engineering at the University of Colorado. He worked at Sandia National Laboratories on projects relating to the storage of nuclear waste, weapons components testing and rocket systems. He also taught at the University of Colorado and New Mexico State University. He’s now one of several trained guides who lead free guided walking history tours Downtown. This is his second book.

Longtime friend and fellow engineer Norman Falk was the book’s photographer and Zimmerman’s sounding board. The two met in a professional engineering organization more than three decades ago.

“He has a unique background, and he’s been widely known and respected for his technical expertise,” Falk said. “And now he’s one of the prime movers in the local historical society.”

His father sold the trading post when he was drafted during World War II but opened a store in Gallup named Zimmerman. The family no longer owns the store, but it’s still there today bearing the Zimmerman name.

His life came full circle during a recent book signing in Albuquerque. A man from the Navajo Nation attended the event with his family. The man, not knowing Zimmerman’s background, told him he went to the signing because he was in town and wanted his children to meet someone who had written a book.

Zimmerman then heard the family speaking Diné, the Navajo language.

“I was able to ask him questions in his language,” he said. “My Navajo is very limited, but I know enough phrases. He was surprised, and then I told him about my background.”

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