Remembering Joe Martin, who showed us how and why to live

by DG Martin

A few days ago my college classmate and friend Joe Martin supervised the planting of new flowers in his yard at Lake Norman. Earlier he directed the installation of a sliding tube to the treehouse he recently designed and had constructed for his grandchildren. He ordered new round water toys ‘— large enough to hold and spin an adult ‘— for his family and friends to enjoy on the July 4 holiday before the annual evening fireworks display.

On July 4 the flowers brightened the yard, the children enjoyed the new sliding tube, some older children and brave adults tried out the new water toys and everyone enjoyed the fireworks.

It was almost the same as if Joe were still there.

Twelve years ago Joe learned that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which gradually but certainly robs its victims of their ability to move and ultimately takes their lives.

Adjusting to life with ALS would be an awesome challenge for anyone. But Joe had been so active and energetic that it must have been even more difficult for him. He had helped his brother Jim win election as governor in 1984. Then, as a senior executive with Bank of America, he helped guide Hugh McColl through the thickets of mergers, growth and corporate citizenship.

By his honest, wise and practical counsel, Joe gained the trust and confidence of Gov. Martin, Chairman McColl, and many others. Then he pushed them for active efforts to strengthen communities and expand opportunities for minorities and women. People called him the conscience of the bank ‘— and the community.

When we learned of Joe’s illness, we thought it was such a shame that his powerful and influential voice would be stilled.

We should not have worried.

ALS did rob Joe of his ability to speak clearly and then to speak at all. But even when he could not move his mouth or even his hands, he found a way to communicate.

By using a device that pointed a laser beam at his eyeball, he could direct the beam to individual letters and punctuation marks on a light-sensitive ‘“keyboard’” grid. He could write with his eyes.

And write he did. His ‘“coming of age’” novel, Fire in the Rock, is still winning critical praise. His memoir of his illness, On Any Given Day, inspired its readers to live life richly and fully, looking past the ‘“minor’” hindrances that might be in our pathways.

Other writing projects were always underway, including thousands of letters and e-mail messages commenting on current events.

After he became ill Joe determined to communicate even more openly than before about matters that concerned him ‘— especially education and race relations. He found that his condition gave him more leeway to confront important issues forcefully.

‘“Maybe I have an advantage over you,’” he told me. ‘“Nobody is going to hit a man in a wheelchair, so I can talk a little more freely.’”

Joe learned to use ALS to his advantage.

He told us that the paralyzed man people saw was not the real Joe Martin and that his condition was’ ‘“just a job he was given to do.’”

Our Davidson College classmate Joe Robinson says this comment from Joe Martin ‘“is one of the most profoundly perceptive and courageous statements I have ever read ‘— right up there with ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ from John Milton’s sonnet, ‘On His Blindness.””

Keeping Joe alive was complicated and intense work for Joe, his caregivers and, especially, for his wife Joan. That task came to an end on the weekend before July 4. After his flurry of activity earlier in the week, he had a time of pain and discomfort. Alone with Joan at the end, he communicated with his eyes the letters A’—C’—E, which she later understood to be his effort to say ‘“P-E-A-C-E’” as he told her goodbye.

As I tell him goodbye, I thank him for teaching me to treasure life as an opportunity to do good and for showing me why it is worthwhile to fight hard to hold on to life for as long as it can be of service to others.