The Beloved Marshall of Arlington
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Star-Telegram on May 14, 2000. Tom Browning is currently Assistant Pastor of Grace Community Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Keller and a teacher of World Literature at Faith Christian School in Grapevine. Browning is still a resident of Arlington.
Everybody called him Marshall. Outsiders and kids who didn’t know any better called him “the Marshall”. And that was perfectly understandable because most of the time he was decked out in full western regalia.
Marshall’s standard look was boots, jeans, a western shirt, a bandana around his neck and a wide‐ brimmed Stetson hat. He wore a bright, shiny tin star, and he almost always had two six‐guns strapped around his waist.
When he died on May 15, 1961, Arlington was devastated. Marshall was one of the most beloved figures in the city’s colorful history.
He was a familiar figure at Arlington State College (now known as The University of Texas at Arlington) and a part of downtown traffic control, and he was active with the volunteer fire department. More people attended his funeral at First Methodist Church than had ever attended any funeral in Arlington up until that time.
The stories about him still make the venerable old saints of Arlington break out in laughter. And here is the most amazing part: Marshall was what was then called “mentally retarded.”
Nobody interviewed for this story, though, used the word retarded. To a person, they all used the word special. That speaks volumes about the deep affection felt toward him.
The only place I found “retarded” was on Marshall’s death certificate.
It is almost as if good old Dr. A. L. Karbach knew that someone down the road would want to write about Marshall, and so he did something fairly unusual: he included the medical reason for Marshall’s retardation on the death certificate. Apparently, before Marshall was born, the umbilical cord that tied him to his mother began to hemorrhage, and Marshall developed sever anemia that led to his retardation.
Marshall Morton was born on July 26, 1921, and was one of five children of Rufus and Lillie Morton.
When I asked people why the people of Arlington loved Marshall, they almost always began to talk about Marshall’s mother. Lillie Morton was obsessed with her son’s character and how he looked – that he was morally and physically clean. This obsession was adopted by many of the residents of Arlington, which had a population of well under 50,000.
The ladies down at First Methodist were probably the first to pitch in. Lillie was a faithful member there, and the other women considered her to be such a good and godly woman that they felt an obligation to help any way they could. So they began to watch out for Marshall.
Hazel Terry and her son Hayden Victor Terry fondly remember Marshall helping out over at Arlington State with security and parking. Helping out meant that he walked around with the elderly uniformed gentlemen who actually handled security on campus.
Each semester, one of the new kids at the college would start picking on Marshall – either because of his retardation or because of the way he talked, which was slurred by a speech impediment.
Whenever a newcomer would start picking on Marshall, the other students would rush up and warn the transgressor: “Look, if you want to stay in this town and attend this college, there is one thing you have to get straight right off. Do not mess with Marshall! The people of Arlington will run you out of town on a rail if you mess with him.”
Eventually the college students came to adore Marshall. His picture was frequently in the school annual, The Reveille. Girls at the college would give him their pictures and would write him notes. He was always ready to stop and clean his pockets and show people a picture of his “newest girlfriend,” even though he might not remember her name.
During the 1950s, Arlington State College began the custom of allowing Marshall to run from the goal post at the halftime of football games. He could run like the wind, and he could twirl his pistols as he ran. (Of course, Marshall’s pistols were cap guns, and everybody in Arlington knew it.)
When he reached the 50‐yard line, he would stop, fire off his pistols, twirl them into their holsters and run off the field toward the other goal post. The crowd – at least on the Arlington side – would go absolutely wild with whooping and hollering and clapping, just like they would have if Roy Rogers had ridden Trigger from one goal post to the other.
Opposing crowds watched the spectacle with less enthusiasm, wondering what exactly had gotten into the Arlington water supply. But the people of the town didn’t care one whit about what other people thought. They allowed Marshall to do his thing because it gave him pleasure – and because it gave him pleasure, they loved it, too.
When Marshall wasn’t over at the college, he spent a lot of time downtown. He particularly liked the bus stop, on the northwest corner of Center and Division Streets, in the place where Woody’s Pawn Shop (now Top Dollar Pawn Superstore) is now.
He liked to walk ladies across U.S. 80. The ladies who knew Marshall were happy to be escorted by him, and even the ladies who were first‐time visitors to Arlington were happy to be walked across the highway by what they thought was one of Arlington’s finest, since they didn’t know the ever‐present badge and guns weren’t real.
When he was directing traffic downtown, he would point out parking spaces or open car doors or whatever needed to be done to make things go smoothly. And if things got slow, he was always ready to entertain people with his whistling or his yodeling. It was while he was acting as traffic coordinator that Marshall went from being town mascot to legendary character.
There is one story about Marshall that is deep in Arlington lore, and the best person to tell it is someone who was witness to it: Tarrant County Judge and long-time Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff.
“It was in the ‘50s. I received a letter from a gentleman in Oklahoma, simply addressed to the mayor of Arlington, which I was privileged to be at that time. He wrote that he had been in Dallas the previous Saturday for the Texas‐Oklahoma football game and was returning to his Fort Worth hotel afterward when he stopped for a signal light on Highway 80, as it was known in those days. I quickly surmised that this was the very corner where Marshall, with an honorary badge on his shirt and toy pistols on his hips, often stood guard and was particularly helpful to people getting off buses stopping at their station, located then at Highway 80 and Center Street.
“The man wrote that he was somewhat confused about directions he should take to get to Fort Worth but saw one of Arlington’s uniformed policemen standing near the intersection. He said he rolled down the window to ask the officer for help, even though he realized traffic was heavy and drivers behind his car were honking their horns for him to move on. He explained that he didn’t quite understand the officer’s answer to his plea for help and when he asked ‘the policeman’ to repeat his instructions he said ‘your officer pulled a gun on me and told me to get out of there!” He told me that he hurriedly did so but would never dare to come back to Arlington again.
“I realized that Marshall, being the keen observer of traffic that he was, knew the congestion had to be eased and this prompted him to take steps to urge the visitor from Oklahoma to move on. I picked up the phone and, with the help of the information operator, got the gentleman on the line. I tried to explain matters to him, but I could sense he was still nervous about the incident, and I am not at all sure he ever drove through Arlington again!”
I love that story, and even more than that I love the fact that Vandergriff still loves the story and is willing to tell it over and over again. It was just the way Arlington was; it was just the way Marshall was.
Marshall was also the principal mascot of the Arlington volunteer fire department. In that capacity, he was one of the major attractions in every parade in Arlington in the 1950s.
When he died in 1961, his mother even asked Chief J. W. Dunlop for, and was granted, permission to bury Marshall in his fireman’s uniform. Dunlop even placed Marshall’s fireman’s hat in the casket before they closed the lid.
This may seem sentimental, but it’s the way people in Arlington felt about Marshall. The thing that brought people together to watch out for him and to give him a chance to participate in the life of our town made it a pretty special place.
So it was no wonder that when Marshall died in 1961 just two days after the legendary Gary Cooper, we all stopped grieving for Cooper and started grieving for our own Marshall. Cooper was make‐believe, and Marshall Morton was the real thing.
And yes, partner, 39 years later we can smile when we say that.