From the trails of Hell’s Hole to the halls of power, John and Claudia Sue Armer have traveled a few switchbacks together.
“We have been such a good team in so many of our efforts,” says John, a former police chief and three-term sheriff of Gila County. “We each have our outlooks.”
Those outlooks come through in the tales they tell about their adventures in love.
“Once I shot a bear…” Claudia begins.
John interrupts to question her, “You realize you’re about to confess to a crime?”
Apparently, it wasn’t bear season, but when a big one got too close to her children, Claudia ran for her shotgun. She hit the bear with her first shot, and then shot it again.
John corroborates with a nod, pride in his smile.
It was December 14, 1960. The fight for U.S. civil rights was raging; there was war in Viet Nam. The Pill was on the market and Chubby Checker was singing The Twist.
In Globe, two high school juniors were at the Busy Boy (now Dairy Queen) having a Coke.
John Armer, a football player and student officer, was quite a catch. Born and raised in Globe, all the girls knew him. Many liked him.
Claudia Sue Grace was the new girl in town. She grew up in Prescott, with a wonderful family. Until her parents got divorced and blew it all apart. She moved to Globe to live with her sister and three nieces. She didn’t know John Armer.
“Well, he knows you,” said Alene Cline, “and he wants to meet you.”
“I was immediately smitten,” John recalls. “She was very straight and tall and had a good air and manner about her, easy to talk to.”
He invited Claudia to a New Year’s Eve party, but she was busy, babysitting her nieces. John went with somebody else.
“I was putting these three girls to bed and feeling sorry for myself,” Claudia remembers, “when the doorbell rang.”
It was John.
“Her hair was up in curlers and she was beautiful,” he says.
He gave her a kiss. And left.
They were pretty much together after that. Pretty much.
“We had these little spats,” Claudia says. “It was usually my fault as much as his.”
John sighs. He knew early on that she was the one.
“I admired her so much,” he says. Still does.
“She had such poise,” John recalls. “I knew she was smart, but didn’t know how smart until the later years. Really bright.”
“He had wonderful eyes,” Claudia says; she remembers her attraction to his strength and maturity.
One day, Claudia watched as John jumped up to take the trash out for his mother.
“There’s a guy with quality,” she thought.
“I was well-trained,” John smiles.
Claudia knew the score. “He was always thoughtful to his mother.”
When they graduated from high school in 1963, the couple marched side by side.
A year later, they were married.
After a church wedding and country club reception, John and Claudia honeymooned at Valley Ho in Phoenix. Room 18. A steak dinner seemed in order.
“But steaks were seven dollars,” Claudia recalls, “so we decided to have a grilled cheese sandwich delivered to the room.”
“We have never had financial issues because we got married when we were young and poor,” says Claudia. “Everything we have, we got together.”
They took eighteen-credit course loads at the University of Arizona and worked summer jobs. They lived in a World War II quonset hut on campus. The rent was $33.
“There was a door on each side,” describes Claudia. “Plywood partitions between families.”
With graduation approaching, their future looked bright. Claudia had a teaching job lined up for the fall. John had enrolled in law school.
Then, in February 1967, his dad died.
The family ranch was deep in debt; his mother risked losing it all.
“I was going back and forth, keeping things going,” John says.
When school was out, the couple moved to the ranch full-time. By John’s side, Claudia quickly became proficient at riding and ranching duties. Up on a horse before sunrise, they rotated cattle, by horseback, between the lake for the winter grasses and the mountains in the summer.
“Best two years of our life,” says John. “We depended on each other for so much.”
“I loved it,” Claudia said. “It felt like home.”
It’s December 14, 2018. John and Claudia are driving back to the ranch. There’s a window that needs to be fixed.
As they pass Roosevelt Lake on the left, John spots a crown saguaro off to the right. They’ve done a lot of hiking out here.
A mile high, they turn off the road, navigate three private gates, and arrive at their ranch — fifty-five acres of pine, juniper, manzanita, and oak.
“We consider this our cathedral in the woods and our spiritual base,” writes Claudia in a family reunion letter.
When they’re at the ranch, they live in a four-room cabin. First built in 1870, it’s crowded with comforts of an earlier time. The walls are insulated with newspapers. The floor is hand-hewn pine. There is no electricity; the lamps burn propane.
Outside, there’s a bunkhouse, shower room, chicken coop, and quaint two-seater outhouse. Past the blacksmith shop, still in use, is the newest building.
“The barn,” as they call it, is 1600 square feet of guest space, with a garage full of toys and memorabilia.
The upstairs is graced with art from their travels and a cedar chest they bought when they got married. It holds baby clothes, her honeymoon nightgown, and the Pendleton blankets they received as wedding gifts and are “saving for later.”
“Neither of us is good at getting rid of anything,” Claudia laughs.
John and Claudia began building the house in 1999.
“We’re both very particular about things,” notes Claudia, “so we do quality work together.”
Their work has also brought many people together, for birthday parties, family reunions, equine therapy, and John’s annual “hunt.”
In the fall of 1997, their daughter was married at the ranch. Two hundred and fifty guests came to celebrate. One hundred and twenty-five spent the night.
Claudia assumed they’d have children, and she was willing to wait.
“I had this passion that I was going to be educated and be able to take care of myself,” she says.
Once finished with college, they were busy with the ranch. When it sold, they went to work in the valley. There was a year in Chicago, and by then their friends who had kids were getting divorced.
When Claudia learned she was pregnant, she was told she would likely lose the baby. She waited eight months before making a nursery.
“And then she was born,” Claudia says of their daughter, Heather, “and she was the perfect child.”
Less than three years later, Ben was born.
Two was enough. So after enduring first-generation birth control for eleven years, Claudia asked John to take charge, and he did.
She took a year off to stay home with the kids. Then another. It would be twelve years before she returned to her career.
“We waited so long to have kids,” she says, “I really wanted to be in their lives.”
THE LEADING MAN
John served twenty-one years with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office and retired at age 44. Ahead of his time, he took care of the children, now school-aged, while Claudia returned to work.
“He was a big hit,” Claudia says of John’s role as stay-at-home dad. “He started baking bread and passing out buns to his neighbors and stuff.”
Some things, they found, are great for a while.
“It kind of loses its shine,” Claudia explains. “Both with the stay-at-home person and the ones who thought it was cool.”
In 1992, with Claudia’s encouragement, John ran for sheriff of Maricopa County.
He was advised that if he wanted to win, he ought to run as a Republican.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” John said, “so I’ll run as a Democrat.”
He won the primary but lost to Joe Arpaio in the general election.
“Things work out when you stand by your values,” John asserts, but it was a hard loss. For both of them.
When they were invited to Bill Clinton’s inauguration in Washington D.C., Claudia was excited, but John didn’t want to go.
“I didn’t think I was invited,” John corrected. “Someone had to stay home with the kids.”
Claudia went without him.
“It was a major thrill,” she says, “tainted by the fact that John was such an ass about it.”
She saw the inside of the Superior Courthouse, Sandra Day O’Connor’s private office, and Barbra Streisand in a rare live performance.
“He resented me going,” says Claudia, “and I resented that he couldn’t find joy in my experience.”
“She is strong-willed,” John asserts, and admits he is too.
The discord usually resolves in “a day or two.” Sometimes it takes longer.
HIS LEADING LADY
John returned to employment in 1995 as the new chief of police in Globe.
Claudia, by then a full-time counselor, stayed in Phoenix with their teen-aged children. Despite challenges, it was a good time in their relationship.
“It was like dating all over again,” says John.
In May 2000, Claudia retired and joined John in Globe.
“Nobody knew me as anyone other than the chief’s wife,” Claudia laments, but John assures her otherwise.
A teacher for six years and counselor for twenty-four, Claudia’s career integrated cooperative education, gender equity training, and crisis intervention. She helped students see the potential of their lives.
She still reaps the rewards. She recently learned that the student who “jumped out” of a gang to go to college, is now teaching at one.
“Friends. Relationships. Human behavior. That’s what fascinates me,” Claudia says.
John served as chief of police for five and a half years.
Then he ran for Sheriff. Again, with Claudia’s support on the ground and in spirit. This time they won. Three terms.
“He has a good mind, and he knows what to do,“ Claudia says. “I think he enjoys a very good reputation.”
In 2014, the Armers vacationed in Hawaii with their kids and grandkids. Celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, they stayed in a “wonderful room on the ocean.”
They also revisited Room 18 at the Valley Ho. Instead of grilled cheese sandwiches, they drank free champagne and dined on dessert.
At home in downtown Globe, the pleasures are simple. A fire with some wine and cheese.
“We still enjoy each other’s company,” John says.
Claudia turns and looks at her husband of fifty-four years.
“We do, huh?” she says.
“We do,” he concludes.