Pioneer in Columbia was dedicated to social issues

George W. Martin: An appreciation


Before his death, George W. Martin typed out a list of some of the community activities in which he was involved.

It is 35 items long and includes Howard County Clergy for Social Justice, Howard County Housing and Community Development Board, Howard County Peace Week and Toastmasters at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he worked for 30 years.

But that list only starts to tell the story of the life of Martin, who was a mathematician.

After his death Thursday, his family and friends are remembering him primarily for his role as a Roman Catholic deacon, his love for Columbia and his dedication to social causes.

Martin, 75, died at Howard County General Hospital. His wife of 41 years, Elizabeth, did not disclose the cause of death.

The Martins were Columbia pioneers - they were among the first people to move to the planned community, lured by founder James W. Rouse's promise that the suburb sprouting on Howard County farmland would be an open community where people of diverse racial and financial backgrounds would live side by side.

They moved to Columbia after a stint in the 1960s in Prince George's County, where they became disenchanted with the way race was viewed.

Elizabeth Martin explained that the couple decided to move after a frustrating experience when they were filling out voter registration forms.

"They asked for races, and he put `C' for Caucasian, and I put `W' for white," she said. "And we received a telephone call that said we were not allowed to live in Prince George's County, because we were a mixed-race couple."

So, they headed to Columbia, a experimental community that they had heard welcomed anybody.

In August 1967 - the town's inaugural year - they moved to a house on Evening Wind Court in Wilde Lake, where Elizabeth Martin still resides.

In a 2002 interview with The Sun, Martin explained why he wanted to move to Columbia.

"I just felt that this was a way that we could help to change things, just from a moral and ethical standpoint," he said. "People should be able to live where they wanted to live, and this was the place that was going to expand on that."

In the interview, Martin said he was pleased with how Columbia had grown into a community in which his three sons benefited from having playmates and classmates of diverse backgrounds.

"They can also learn that we all have gifts, and that doesn't depend on race," he said. "And I think in some places that doesn't always happen, and I think that our children know that."

While living in Columbia, Martin spent most of his career at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he worked on the early stages of satellite navigation. He retired in 1992 after 30 years.

He was president of APL's Toastmasters club, where he met Connie Finney, the lab's educational outreach coordinator, and Ron Zarriello, an engineer.

When Finney and Zarriello wanted to get married in 1987, they asked Martin to preside over the ceremony. He did, and that started a somewhat strange tradition.

The next year, an intern from Italy in Zarriello's office was engaged and didn't know where to get married or who could perform the ceremony, so Martin learned Italian and married the couple.

The next year, an intern from Germany in Zarriello's office was in the same predicament. So, Martin learned how to perform a wedding ceremony in German, Finney said.

"We were very fond of George," Finney said. "He was a very affable fellow. ... Everyone liked George."

Outside of his career, Martin became ingrained in Columbia, promoting his vision of community togetherness.

"He was a man with a great commitment to the community, justice and peace," said his son, George A. Martin of Florence, Mass. "And those are the things that I think everybody who met him understood and derived from him."

One of Martin's more well-known roles was as a deacon at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia for almost 30 years, where the Rev. Richard H. Tillman called him the church's "prophetic conscience."

In a service after Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Martin talked about forgiveness, much to the dismay of some in the congregation.

Some people walked out and sent letters to Tillman, explaining that they had a hard time jumping to forgiveness so soon after the attacks.

"He said things that some people have a hard time integrating in their way of living," Tillman said. "Everybody has a conscience ... and sometimes a prophetic conscience comes out as not quite as reasonable as others."

Tillman said while Martin cherished his role as a deacon, he saw himself more as one of the church's "loving critics." He didn't mesh with the pomp and circumstance that would accompany a "high church" philosophy, and instead was more free-flowing, Tillman said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.