By Merry Darr
Special to the Sun
When I was a child, my heroes were cowboys. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. All of them were soft spoken, self effacing, hard working, and always striving to do the right thing. When someone was in trouble, an animal or a person, they were there to make things better. Then I grew up and I began to think that maybe the cowboy legend was too good to be true until I met Manny Ruiz.
Manny does not describe himself as a cowboy; he describes himself as a rancher. According to Manny, that means he spends a lot of time fixing fence, checking on his cattle, and making sure there is a good water supply. It takes a lot of land to support cattle in an arid state like Arizona so that means it takes a lot of fence, and when the ranch is located near a community the way Manny’s is, you’d better be fixing that fence. Cows are not good neighbors if they are allowed to roam. They have a way of eating anything and everything green and leaving many steaming piles of evidence of their presence. Oddly enough this does not make them popular with homeowners and they are certainly not welcome on a golf course. Fortunately for Manny he enjoys what he does, he likes riding horses, he likes fixing fence and he likes checking up on his cattle. To him, it’s been a lot of hard work, but a good life.
Both his father and grandfather were cowboys and their history of how this job was done reflects the history of cowboying in Arizona. Manny started his own cowboy career in the 1930s when he began to spend every weekend on his grandfather’s ranch. Later on he and his father became partners. Manny has been ranching now for about 50 years. Currently he has around 100 head of cattle that he runs on 20 sections of land. Although most of the time he operates the ranch by himself, he tells me he would not be able to brand those cattle if he didn’t have the help of the Martinez family. The Martinez brothers have been working with Manny so long they can read each others’ minds. Tony started working on the ranch when he was in the 6th grade and George began when he was in high school. According to Manny they and their brother, Carlos are all first rate cowboys and they have trained their children to be excellent cowboys as well.
Manny is the first one of his family to actually own the land where he runs the cattle. In the early 60s, Manny and his father were running cows in the Queen Valley area. At the time, they were able to use the land based upon an oral agreement and a handshake which was how most cattle ranching was done in the old days. Then, Arizona Title Company bought up the land where Manny’s family ran cows for development of the community of Queen Valley and the cattle were no longer welcome on that land. Manny just happened to be in the right place at the right time when he met a realtor in Apache Junction who had grazing leases to sell and all he had to do was in his own words, “move those cattle right next door.” From then on, when ever he had the money, he bought land.
A Cowboy history would not be complete unless the horses are mentioned. A good cow horse is only productive for about 10 to fifteen years, although their life span is usually much longer. That is because cattle work is extremely hard on the horses physically. They need to be at least four or five to begin with and then the constant hard work on the range results in forced retirement at a relatively early age. Manny has had several horses over the years, all of which he enjoyed, but he mentioned two favorites. When he was a young boy his father gave him a horse named Coyote. He liked that horse so much he quit visiting his beloved grandfather in the summer months because he wanted to stay home and ride. As an adult his favorite horse was called Chet. Chet was named after the man that sold him the horse to begin with, a common way for a cowboy to name a horse. When asked why he liked Chet so much, Manny replied, “I liked him and he liked me and he liked cows just as much as I do”. He went on to say that they were partners. They understood each other which made it easier and more fun to do the cattle work. At first Manny said he owned enough horses to make sure that the cowboys who rode for him would have good mounts, but as the years went by the cowboys preferred to own their own horses. This suited and continues to suit Manny just fine. Currently, he just owns two horses which he uses to ride fence.
Manny’s ranch is in Queen Valley, but his home is in Superior. His family has lived here since 1909. He still lives in the old homestead. The house sits on about 14 acres of some of the prettiest land in the Superior area. Although the house is original, it is not located on its original foundation. The original homestead was 16 acres and the house was located in the middle of what is now highway 60. When the highway was built, the house was moved to its present location.
Ranching is hard work and long hours but it isn’t always self sustaining. Manny has worn many hats along side that of a rancher. He has made his living as teacher and a coach and spent 17 summers as a contract miner. He says his most honorable profession has been that of Coach. He spent 31 years as Coach, at first in San Manual and then here in Superior. To be a coach had been his dream, ever since the 6th grade and he says he has felt so privileged to be in the right place to help develop the character of the young men who played sports under his direction.
Ranching, teaching and coaching, three professions that are open ended, time consuming and never done, but Manny has somehow found time to serve his town and his community as well. He was on the committee that originally incorporated Superior, he served 27 years on the Town Council and he was elected Mayor three times. He started the Superior High School Hall of Fame and he spent several years on the Pinal County Advisory Board which sponsors student participation in mock trials and he is family man, the father of five children. He says he was able to do all of this only because of the help of his wife Aurora. They have been married 61 years despite the fact that he was gone so much and he says it’s because of her patience, strength and good will that their marriage has lasted. Anybody else would have left him years ago.
Although Manny is retired now from politics and from coaching, he has not yet retired from ranching. He is beginning to think though that maybe it’s time to hire some part time help and he might do that next year. When asked when does a cowboy retire, Manny answered a cowboy retires when they can’t get on a horse anymore. Manny is not there yet.
Traditionally, the American cowboy has been revered in this country which of course is why we celebrate the Night of the Cowboy, but it takes more than the ability to ride a horse and to chase cows to be the kind of cowboy that is worth honoring. It takes honesty, hard work, integrity, kindness and a willingness to give back to his community to be that type of cowboy. Lucky for Superior, Manny Ruiz fits the bill.
I had Manny read this over to make sure that I had all my facts straight and he just asked me to add two things. First of all he wants people to know he is a faithful man. By that he means that he goes to church regularly and that he prays every day. The second thing he wants you all to know is that he is only half the man his father was. The last thing he said, he probably doesn’t want included, he told me he was hoping that this party was going to be rained out. Typical cowboy, he doesn’t want all this fuss to be about him.
Footnote: This tribute to Manny Ruiz was written by me, Merry Darr, so that I could read it to him and to the audience at the Night of the Cowboy Ceremony that the Superior Chamber of Commerce put on the night of October 19, 2013. Just before it was time for us to go on stage, Manny asked me to add one more thing. He is involved with the Superior Food Bank and he wanted me to ask for donations. Typical Manny, nothing about blowing his own horn, instead just thinking of another way to give. This is what I wrote and consequently what I said.
“PS Manny is still helping our community. He is a Board Member of our local Food Bank. The next time they are asking for donations, dig deep in your pockets! Make like Manny and give! give! give!”