Though Baltimore was not one of Marshall's favorite places, Diggs points out that it was where Marshall "cut his teeth" as a lawyer.

In stark opposition to his zeal for fighting for human rights, however, Marshall as a youth is said to have "worn life like a loose garment," Gibson said.

He was a prankster, who refused to take himself seriously, and often - in his younger days - disobeyed authority. At Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Marshall skipped studying and played pinochle and poker. He was thrown out of college twice for fraternity pranks, according to a Washington Post article by Juan Williams. Also, Marshall might have become a dentist if he had been able to behave in biology class.

But according to published biographies, while at Lincoln University, Marshall antagonized his biology teacher so much that the teacher flunked him, serendipitously forcing Marshall to find another career. He would graduate from Lincoln with honors.

'Driven ... ornery'
Marshall became even more serious while at Howard, where he came under the tutelage of the law school's vice dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. The men shared an unshakeable vision of a desegregated American society.

But while Houston was neat, orderly and polite, " Thurgood Marshall was boisterous, paid minimal attention to clothing and cussed a lot," said the University of Maryland's Gibson. "He was a chain smoker, and he could hold his liquor."

Columnist Carl Rowan once described Marshall as "driven, sometimes compassionate, but often ornery; hardworking, hard-cussing and sometimes hard-drinking; hard-to-get-along with under pressure, self-effacing and graceful in triumph."

A 1967 Time magazine article said that Marshall was "a gregarious storyteller with a dry wit and a healthy thirst for bourbon and water." The article went on to say that Marshall was "equally comfortable drawling earthy tales in a self-mocking chitlins-and-cornpone Negro dialect or arguing law in meticulously scholarly tones."

But by the end of his historic term on the Supreme Court - as the first black person appointed to the nation's highest court - Marshall seemed to have lost most of his dry wit and jokester traits, and had become even more of a curmudgeon, historians say.

Frustrating end
"He was very frustrated by the way the court was going," said Lisa A. Crooms, a professor of constitutional law at Howard University's law school.

The Supreme Court was disappointing the aging Marshall at every turn, seemingly going backward on the road to racial equality, by opposing such programs as affirmative action and race-based "set-asides" in business contracts.

"By the time he left [the Supreme Court], we had some inkling that [President George H.W.] Bush was going to nominate Clarence Thomas in his place," Crooms said. "And I remember, there was Marshall, in his white orthopedic socks, and the cane, and he was so through."

With his disappointment growing, coupled with failing health, Marshall retired from the nation's high court in 1991. When Marshall died of heart failure in 1993 in Bethesda, politicians, activists and great legal minds across the country proclaimed him the greatest civil rights and constitutional lawyer of the 20th century.

But Marshall, a man of humble beginnings, had been more modest in assessing himself.

His famous parting words:

"I guess you could say, 'He did what he could, with what he had.'"

In 2005 the airport was renamed Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Timeline: Thurgood Marshall